monique polak

Monique Polak's Books


"Ai" from Kuujjuaq!

I'm in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, where people say "Ai" instead of "Hi".

I'm here with my friend photographer Thomas Kneubuhler (that's him in the black T-shirt). We'll be here until Friday, working with Cyril's Sec. V students at Jaanimmarik School. We're helping the students use words and images to produce a chapter in the next edition of a book called Quebec Roots: The Place Where We Live. The project is part of the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation's educational program.

We left Montreal at 10 this morning, and by 2 P.M., we were in the school library, working with our students. They've decided to do their chapter about meeting places in their community, so we began making plans to do some writing research and a photo-shooting field trip together tomorrow. Also, I did a short talk about how I became an author and told the students what writing means to me -- EVERYTHING!

I have noticed that every time I hang out with a photographer, I learn about writing too! So here's what I learned today -- Thomas asked a really good question, "When there are so many photos around us, why take more?" and then he answered his own question by saying, "We want to make photos that matter." I decided the same is true about writing. Writing has to matter.

Authors and writing teachers often advise, "Write about what you know." Thomas said something similar to the students today about photography: "If you're close to something, you can take very good photos. You have access."

So, here's to writing -- and photographing -- what you know. If you are reading this and you're one of the students at Jaanimmarik that we are working with this week, we look forward to reading your stories and seeing your photographs!

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In the Mood for a Book? Need the Perfect Recommendation?

If you're in the mood for a book, but you need the perfect recommendation... I have just the solution to your dilemma.

Check out The Book Dumpling. It's a website "curated" by my friend and kindred spirit, Andrea Borod. Andrea has been teaching English at Lower Canada College here in Montreal for five years. But she's been recommending books for a lot longer than that! (I happen to know this personally since every time Andrea and I meet up, we always talk about books and I always enjoy her recommendations.)

Visitors to The Book Dumpling can fill out a short questionnaire and Andrea will send along her customized book recommendations. Since Andrea launched her website a week ago, she's recommended books to more than 400 people. Talk about spreading the word!

I asked Andrea why she thinks books are important. Here's what she told me: "The number one reason is that books create empathy. They make you see the world in a way you didn't before. Or they give voice to something you thought, but would never express."

I also like and totally agree with Andrea's philosophy that, "Everyone's a reader. Even if they don't know it yet."

By the way, in case you're wondering (as I was) why Andrea came up with the name "Book Dumpling," there is a perfectly logical explanation: Andrea's boyfriend calls her his dumpling! Andrea also explained that she likes when two words that don't usually go together (think "book" and "dumpling") are combined.

So what are you waiting for, dear blog reader? Go visit The Book Dumpling!


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One of Those Schools that Feels Like Home...


Hello hello dear blog reader,

Today I visited Heritage Regional High School -- one of the Montreal-area schools I know so well it feels like home.

If you've been following my blog, you will know I was there last month with my friend, photographer Monique Dykstra, to work with Mary Eva's Sec. IV class on a project called Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. Mrs. Eva's class is producing a chapter that will be published next spring in a book -- part of a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project in which students from across the province use photos and images to describe their communities. Mrs. Eva's class is focusing on the subject of rules.

Though I did spend my break working with Mrs. Eva's students, helping them edit their writing so it is as clear and crisp as possible, I spent most of the day with Norma Hubbard's two Sec. IV classes. Mrs. Hubbard wanted me to talk about my life as a writer -- in the hope that it might inspire her students as they gear up to work on their final English exam. That's me with Mrs. Hubbard and some of her students in today's second pic.

Of course, you must be wondering about the pic at the top of this page! It's a photo I took of a student named Mika's agenda book. She painted over the own, making her own unique design. And as I explained to Mrs. Hubbard's classes, we writers are always on the look-out for cool DETAILS to add to our stories. And wouldn't you know it ... the book I'm currently re-writing has a girl-artist for its protagonist. And guess what I'm giving her first thing tomorrow? Mika's agenda book -- grimacing skull and all! So hey, thanks Mika!

A student named Anthony told me he is an aspiring song writer. He told us that one of his friends advised him, "Just write. Don't think about the fact that you're writing a song." I think that's good advice -- especially for a first draft. Though I have never written a song, I suspect that re-writing plays an important role in the world of music too!

A special shout-out to Katherine for bringing me my book bag (and for your bright smile), and to Anthony for returning me to Mrs. Eva's classroom -- even though he wasn't sure where it was!

Good luck on exams, you guys! Thanks Mrs. Hubbard and Mrs. Eva for bringing me to your school. Thanks Mrs. Hubbard for the lily (that's what I'm holding in the picture below), and thanks Mrs. Eva for the fun door-to-door service.

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"When I read a book, it feels like I'm the main character"

The title of today's blog entry ("When I read a book, it feels like I'm the main character") comes from Hargagan, a sixth grade student at St. Lawrence Senior Academy in Lasalle, Quebec.

I met Hargagan and several other sixth graders from the school at lunch time today, when I went to do a talk for the school's book club. The talk was organized by my friend (and former student!), librarian Wendy Corner.

I loved what Hargagan had to say about reading. Not only because it happens to me, too, when I read a book, but also because that feeling of identifying with your main character also happens when you WRITE A BOOK!

It was fun to get to work with students who are hooked on reading. We discussed the links between writing and reading (how both activities provide a safe place when the world goes a little crazy around us) and I also told the students how I get ideas for my books.

A student named William told us that his great-grandfather's 90th birthday is coming up this weekend and that his great-grandfather was a parachutist during World War II. That sure sounds to me like an amazing story and I urged William to interview his great-grandfather. (I told him I always try to get my interview subjects to have a cup of tea with me... it literally warms them up!)

A student named Connor seems to be whipping through my latest book, Pyro. In fact, at one point, I caught Connor sneaking a peak at the text!

So, if you're a member of the S.L.S.A. book club who happens to be reading today's blog entry, thanks for being fun, interested and smart! And thank Wendy for another great invite! (Someone should do a story about a librarian with a green thumb, who has such a big plant it's taking over the library!!)

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Igniting Another Writing Fire

Hello hello, dear blog readers!

I'm just home from an exciting morning at Westmount Library, where I did another "Ignite Your Writing Fire" workshop with Grade Seven students from Selwyn House and Miss Edgar's & Miss Cramps's School. The activity was part of this year's Blue Metropolis Children's Literary Festival.

Both schools are close enough to the library that the students were able to walk  over -- maybe that helped get them in the mood for my presentation. We started with a short discussion of body language (how to hold your pencil in a way that makes you look studious!) and how writers need to SHOW not TELL. (Body language happens to be a great way to show important information about your characters. Here's an example of body language -- check out today's pic... you can tell by the way I am LEANING IN that I was really interested in what this student had written!)

I also explained how writers need to ask themselves the question WHAT IF? in order to advance a story's plot. Sivan, a Miss Edgar's and Miss Cramps's student told me, "I think 'What if?' all the time." A Selwyn House student named Hamza had many good questions for me. I talked a little about my novel What World Is Left and how it deals, among other things, with the question of propaganda art. Hamza wanted to know how drawings can lie. I told him that the father in the book is forced by the Nazis to make drawings of happy scenes (for instance, people lounging in a café) in the concentration camp -- even though there was no real café in the concentration camp.

Another student from Selwyn House, Ben, told me he has a collection of apology notes that he seems to have written to just about every staff member at the school! "Every letter has a story in it," Ben said. I suggested that package of apology notes just might make a great idea for a story.

Okay, I'm off to my own students now at Marianopolis College. Thanks to Wendy Wayling, the terrific children's librarian at the Westmount Library, for getting today's event organized. Thanks to the students and teachers who participated, and to the others who joined the audience, including two of my own students (Maria took  photos for me -- thanks!) and my good friend Katherine Walsh. 

Remember: TROUBLE makes good stories, but STAY OUT OF IT! And SHOW; DON'T TELL. And one more thing: NEVER EVER GIVE UP (even if your own dad tells you to!).

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Ignite Your Writing Fire!

Hope you like the title of today's blog entry! That's because Ignite Your Writing Fire! is the title of the presentation I did this morning at the Montreal Children's Library, Atwater branch. 

It's a big week here in Montreal: the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival kicked off today and runs through April 29. My events at the library was one of the several writing workshops I'll be doing this week with kids at the festival.

Most of this morning's audience was made up of Grades Five and Six students from Westmount Park School. I know I shouldn't pick favourites, but well, sometimes a person can't help it! I couldn't get my camera (it's actually my husband's) to work, but two clever guys sitting at the front helped me out. Thanks, guys! Then, when I asked the question, "What do writers need to do pretty much all the time?" a student named Daham came up with a great answer: "Practice!" (I showed the kids my Journal, and explained that I got up extra early this morning to write three pages in it -- the way I do every single morning!)

We talked about doing research, revising (the students have learned all about editing, which is pretty impressive for Grades Five and Six!) and how some stories start with a bit of truth. I gave them the example of my book, Junkyard Dog. I got the idea for the book when I met a guard dog who worked at a local convenience store.

I wish there'd been even more time because I would also have read a little from my latest book, Pyro.

There were some adults who came to listen to my talk, too. One was Candace B., who volunteers at the library. Candace stayed to ask me how much research a fiction writer needs to do. I told her, "Research as needed!" I pointed out how the danger of research is that some people spend so much time researching, they never do any actual writing!!

So the word for today is WRITE. Actually, it's three words: WRITE WRITE WRITE. That's basically what you need to do if you want to write stories. Or as Daham said, "Practice!"

Hey, special thanks to my friend, librarian Elizabeth Macdonnell, for welcoming me to the Montreal Children's Library. I feel right at home in your library and with you, Elizabeth! Thanks also to the students from Westmount Park, and to their teachers. Hope you had a fun morning and learned a lot about how stories work!


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Report from the Computer Room: Westwood Senior High

 Hello hello, dear blog reader!

It's lunch time at Westwood Senior High School in Hudson, Quebec, and I'm in the computer room, writing today's blog entry. I love the sounds of a high school at lunch -- boys' booming voices, girls' laughter, lockers slamming, and yes, a bit of swearing too.
The reason I'm feeling so happy today is I had a great morning with Ali Welik's Work-Oriented Training Path Students. They're a group of young people (that's them in today's pic), aged 14 to 17, who spend three days a week with Miss Welik, and the rest of the week in the workplace. Two of the boys work at local grocery stores, one works at a vet, and the only girl in the class works at a salon. As you can imagine, they've got lots of stories!
That was basically my goal this morning: to help the students find the stories they need to tell. When I mentioned I take boxing lessons and that I'm writing a book about a girl boxer, a student named Norm told us a great story! Apparently, he is a boxer too (a serious one!), and because he works in the meat department at an IGA store, he sometimes uses the cow carcasses for punching bags!! When I heard that story, the top of my arms went cold -- the way they do when I hear or see (or smell!) a great story or a great detail.
Then Spencer, who was sitting next to Norm, did something I love and believe in: Spencer PLAYED with the story, asking my favourite question, "What if?" What if, Spencer wondered, the head butcher walks in when his young employee is practising his punches on a cow carcass? Would the young employee get fired -- or would he talk his way out of it? See... there's a perfect example of how a story can be rooted in reality, but then imagination takes over. Way to go, Spencer!
As usual, I tried to jot down certain DETAILS. That's because DETAILS HELP BRING STORIES TO LIFE. The only girl I told you about is named Charlie (short for Charlotte). (I think it would be cool to read her story... what is it like to be the only girl in a room full of boys? And I love that her nickname just happens to be a boy's name!). I also observed a guy named Joey's smile. He tries not to smile, but when he does, his lower lip curls up the tiniest bit. You know what, Joey? I'm going to use your smile in one of my stories.
This afternoon, I work with one more group -- they're a Grade 11 class. If I like them half as much as I liked Miss Welik's gang, well, it'll be a perfect day!
Three cheers for stories -- and kids with great stories to tell (and interesting smiles)!

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I start every day by writing three pages in the speckled notebook I call my "Morning Pages." Today, I wrote that it was going to be a lickety-split-hippity-hoppity sort of day. That's because it's a little after noon, and I've already been to two schools, will teach a class at Marianopolis this afternoon, and then will be doing an interview tonight for a story I'm writing for the Montreal Gazette.

I could be tired, but I'm not -- instead I'm buzzing from all the excitement.

I started the day with the other Monique, my friend photographer Monique Dykstra. We went to meet Miss Leckner's Grade 3 & 4 class at Willingdon School here in N.D.G. The students will be participating in this year's Quebec Roots project, an educational program offered through the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation. Monique D will teach the class how to shoot photos; I'm responsible for helping them improve their writing skills.

Miss Leckner's kids were fun and attentive and they CHEERED when they heard about our project. Hey, I'm going to tell my class at Marianopolis today that they better cheer too. It sure gives a teacher a lot of energy!

I zipped out (I told you it was a lickity-split-hippity-hoppity day) from Willingdon to go to James Lyng High School, where I did a tele-conference with Miss Corb's Sec. I students at Joliette High School. That was fun, too. With both groups, I talked a little about how I get my ideas and I also talked about the writing process -- and the essential role of rewriting! A student named Amélie wanted to know how many manuscripts I wrote before I sold my first one. I was glad she asked that question! Of course, I told the truth (I only get to lie when I am writing FICTION!)... so I told Amélie and her classmates that I wrote three manuscripts, and possibly even four, before I sold the first one. That reminded me to tell the students something really important: NEVER EVER GIVE UP! (If I had, I would NEVER have become an author.)

I also tried something I've never tried before -- a writing exercise via tele-conference. And you may be able to see from today's pic (if you squint!) that it worked! I gave the students prompts to help them remember some experience from when they were five years old. I've found that when this exercise goes well, it often leads to the germ for a story.

I'm off again now to Willingdon, where the Moniques are going to see whether we can get Miss Leckner's class to agree on a topic for their chapter in the 2013 edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live.

And you know what I'm going to do tomorrow when I have a long break with loads of time to myself? I'm going to do what restores me after busy days like this one....

I'M GOING TO READ AND WRITE! AHH! BLISS! I wish for you, dear blog reader, that you find stuff to do in your own lives, perhaps even reading and writing, that bring you the same bliss.


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Quebec Roots 2013: The Moniques Are Back in Action!

If you've been reading my blog for a while or if you know about the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation, you will know that Quebec Roots is an educational program in which teams of writers and photographers travel across the province to help students produce a chapter in a book called Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. You will also know that the other Monique is my dear friend and fabulous photographer Monique Dykstra.

The exciting news is that after an initial delay, the 2013 edition is back on track!

This afternoon, the Moniques did a short but action-packed writing and photography workshop with Mary Eva's Sec. IV Language Arts class at Heritage Regional High School in St. Hubert. Were Mrs. Eva's students ever smart and enthusiastic!

About today's pic: Those are my hands and Mary Eva is wearing the purple blouse. But what I like best about the pic are the students' faces. I think that you can tell they're excited to be part of the project!

Besides our mini-workshops, we Moniques had another goal today: to help students come up with a focus or topic for their chapter. We had an exciting down-to-the-clock brainstorming session. Some of the topics the students suggested were: the high cost of poutine in the school cafeteria; and homophobia. But because we are democratic sorts, we put the matter to a vote and the students agreed on a topic they all felt they would be able to explore through words and images: school rules and how they are enforced, or sometimes not enforced, and how some students end up in detention.

Of course, because I have a writer-ly interest in TROUBLE, I am eager to read about what goes on in the school's detention room. I am hoping the students will write about that -- and take pics of course, too!

At the end of our session, a student named Brandon was interviewed about Quebec Roots. I was super proud when I heard him say, "Now we're authors. It's very cool!"

Many thanks to Line Richer of Blue Met who accompanied the Moniques, and to Don and Dan who caught our adventures with the class on video. Thanks, Mrs. Eva, for sharing your class with us and to your students -- welcome on board! And I mustn't forget to thank Gabrielle who took good care of my husband's camera and shot some nice pic's -- including the one on today's blog post.

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Solving Problems (Part II)

Hello dear blog reader,

I'm calling today's blog entry, "Solving Problems (Part II)," because I've written before about the link between writing and problem-solving.

I know I've quoted my friend, Montreal author and journalist Joel Yanofsky, who once told one of my classes (I know because I've quoted him many times since then): "Writing is problem-solving."

But the reason I'm back on the subject this week is because, thanks to one of my students, I've got a new insight into the importance of problem-solving. So before I start explaining, I need to thank Adam K, who is taking my Writing for Children course at Marianopolis College.

Adam sent me a TED talk link to a presentation called "The Clues to a Great Story" by Andrew Stanton, the writer behind the movie Toy Story, and the writer and director of WALL-E. The thing Stanton said that blew me away is that people ENJOY solving problems, that our minds are hardwired for problem-solving activities.

When I heard that, I thought YESSS! Now it all makes sense!! Writers (and filmmakers) not only find ourselves encountering and (hopefully) solving problems when we tell our stories, but we have to make our readers (and viewers) solve problems, too! That's why we need to SHOW, NOT TELL. That way our readers have the satisfaction of making connections for themselves. When we give them a chance to do that, well then, they like our stories (and movies) even more!!

If you have time, check out Stanton's talk -- I've linked to it here.

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Mid-Term Madness... or Anne Lamott's Strategy for Making it Through

It's midterm at Marianopolis College where I teach -- and we're all going a little bit bonkers. The students have assignments and tests. We teachers have piles of correcting -- and because I juggle writing with teaching, I've got writing deadlines looming too.

So, in all of my classes this week, I've made a little time to talk about Anne Lamott, an American novelist whose advice comes in handy this time of year.

"Bird by bird," Lamott tells us.

Bird By Bird? It's the title of Lamott's book about writing. And there's a great story behind the title. When Lamott's brother was a kid, he had to do a project about birds and he was feeling overwhelmed. When he told his dad about his situation, his dad advised him: "Bird by bird."

I think about those words a lot when my life gets super busy.

If I think about all the things I need to do in the next couple of weeks, well... I might not want to get out of bed tomorrow morning! But if I tackle one task at a time, go bird by bird, it doesn't seem nearly so bad.

Anyway, that's it for today's blog entry. That's because I've got to go and do a little work on one of my birds before bedtime! Good luck with your sparrows and finches and exotic parrots!

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Dear Sara

The title of today's blog entry is "Dear Sara" because I've been in touch with a student named ... you guessed it ... Sara and she asked me such a good question I thought I'd turn it into a blog entry.

Sara is in Mrs. Murphy's English class at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. We met a couple of weeks ago when I spoke at St. Thomas. Sara kindly gave me her permission to tell you about her and to quote her question... so here it is: 

"However,I do have a question for you: why didn't you give up after your first couple of manuscripts got rejected the first time? What made you want to keep going?"

The tough part, of course, is trying to come up with an honest answer.

Why didn't I give up after my first couple of manuscripts (actually, Sara, there were more than a couple! it might have been three, or possibly even FOUR!) were rejected?.... I didn't give up because, well, BECAUSE I COULDN'T. I wanted so badly, so desperately, to be a published author that to be quite frank, giving up was never a real possibility for me. Sure, I sometimes toyed with the idea of giving up on my dream, but never in a serious way. Meaning... sometimes I FELT LIKE GIVING UP, but I didn't act on that feeling.

A wise acquaintance once told me, "It's not how you feel that counts; it's how you behave." I behaved in the not-giving-up fashion and eventually... though it took a long time... and I sometimes felt discouraged... I sold my first manuscript.

And you know what else, Sara and anyone else who is reading this entry? Don't you give up either! Not if your dream is to be an author or a clinical geneticist or a fireman! If you want it, I can already predict there will be obstacles in your way, but you've got to go for it, too!

That act of going for it ... for me, it's what makes me feel most alive. And grateful to be alive.

So Dear Sara, Thanks for asking me this difficult question. I hope you'll stay in touch and keep me posted on how the pursuit of your own dream is coming.

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Writing to you from St. Thomas High School...

I am actually writing today’s blog entry from the library at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. It’s lunch hour and I am lucky to have company – nine students who’ve come to eat lunch with me and do a few writing exercises.

Right now, they are doing one of my favourite exercises: writing book blurbs. And judging by the way their pens and pencils are zipping along the paper, they’ve got many good ideas.

Today, I’m meeting with three Grade Nine classes. I only get 50 minutes with two of the groups, but I had nearly two hours with Tania Ditchburn’s class. So there was time for a writing exercise! I asked the students, who are studying memoir writing, to remember back to when they were five years old. Many of them came up with great material and I asked three of the students for permission to share what they wrote. So here goes:

Thomas wrote about remembering how, when he was in pre-K, he was forced to eat liver: “It smelled nasty.” Amanda remembered posing for a family photograph. She included the following lovely detail: “My sister played with my hair.” And Anthony wrote about his grandmother’s noodle soup and about jumping on the family couch, “pretending to be a zoo animal.”

I’ll end today’s blog entry with my absolute favourite moment of the day. A Grade Ten student named Hannah who did a writing workshop with me last year popped by for lunch and told me how, ever since we met, she has followed my advice about keeping a daily journal. Here is what Hannah had to say about her journal: “It’s helping. It really is. It’s getting the creative juices flowing!”

So thanks to librarian Carolyn Pye for inviting me to St. Thomas again this year. Thanks to the teachers for sharing your students – and thanks to the students for being bright and open! Here’s to all of you!


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Guess Who's Part of the Furniture at St. Thomas High School

There are some schools I've visited so often that, as the expression goes, I feel like "part of the furniture"! When I arrived at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire this morning, I knew exactly where to park my car, where to find the library, and where to set up for my talk. I also knew the students would be focused and attentive -- and they were!

I met with four groups of grade nines and I'll be back next Monday to meet another three groups. So I'll have a chance to work with every ninth grade student in the building.

My presentations were only 40 minutes long each, but I think I packed a lot of information in in a short time. I talked about the importance of WRITING and READING A LOT. I explained how writers need to pay attention to details that can help them tell their stories and of course, I discussed my favourite subject: TROUBLE. Without trouble, we don't really have stories. I advised the students to do their best to stay out of trouble, but I told them how if they've had a taste of trouble (most of us do at some point in our lives), they should USE it in their writing. Feelings that come from lived experience are powerful and can be the source of stories that will touch our readers.

The pic in today's blog entry was taken at lunch time. Three students, now in Grade 10, whom I met last year came by to fill me in on how their writing is going. And guess what? Together, we came up with a seriously cool idea for a writing project! I don't want to give too much away, except to tell you it involves fan fiction.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will also know that I "collect" interesting body language. Well, I found a new one today: I saw a student unpeeling the cellophane wrapper from his juice box, then shredding the wrapper into tiny cellophane flakes. I think I'll use that in my next book!

And two students, Eric and Matthew, taught me something new: a new description for the semi-colon. Together, they came up with the term -- are you ready? -- "winky eye." I like it! Here's a demonstration of the winky eye semi-colon  ;

For those of you at St. Thomas who saw me today and would like to show me some of your writing, don't forget to come by next Monday at lunch. And bring your lunch with you. As long as we don't crumble, Mrs. Pye, your wonderful librarian, is going to let us eat while we work! 

One last thing: there wasn't time to tell the last group the story of the little brass man on my necklace. So here's the story -- when my mum arrived in Theresienstadt (a Nazi concentration camp), she was 13. Her 14th birthday was two weeks later. On that day, she was crying on a stoop, when a woman (another prisoner who was about 30 years old) asked my mum what was wrong. My mum told her, "It's my birthday and no one gave me a present." So the woman gave my mother the little brass man. My mother never saw the woman again, and chances are, that like most prisoners at Theresienstadt, this woman would have been transported to Auschwitz where she almost certainly perished. The little man, and the story of her generosity, may be all that is left of her. Ever since my mum gave me the charm, I have worn it every single day. It reminds me that stories matter -- and that we need to listen to them, tell them, and pass them on.... To my friends at St. Thomas, see you all next week!

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I Love When Students Get It... Quickly!

I would probably be a better teacher -- and a nicer person -- if I was more patient. Only I'm not!

Which is why it is pretty delightful when the students I work with "get it" quickly. That's what happened to me today when I went to work with two of Monic Farrell's Sec. I classes at Mother Teresa Junior High School in Laval.

I had visited both groups earlier this fall, so today was a working day -- meaning the students showed me writing they are working on, and I made lots of comments and suggestions for improvement.

I kept a running list of suggestions on the board (thanks Craig, for writing some of them down for me in the first class). These suggestions included: read your work aloud (it helps you spot errors); eliminate adverbs wherever possible; and shuffle the contents of your sentences around as a way to achieve greater clarity.

Anyway, Miss Farrell's students really GOT IT -- and that made me super happy. I noticed how  several students crossed out adverbs they decided were unnecessary. One group who were working on a piece about La Ronde (for out-of-town readers, that's our giant amusement park) responded to my criticism that their writing sounded too much like a travel brochure. Their re-write was much better than their first draft and included their own "voices," which helped to bring their writing to life.

A few students even spent part of their lunch hour with me, showing me more work. That's me and Dalia in today's pic. Dalia is working on a lively piece about the imaginary break-up of her beloved band, One Direction. Sarah took the pic -- hey, thanks Sarah for putting my camera on the right setting.

It's true we don't always "get" things straightaway when they are explained to us... sometimes, we need to spiral around in our errors before we can make progress... but it sure is nice to get to see progress happen when I'm in a classroom. Thanks to Miss Farrell for inviting me back and sharing your talented students with me, and to all the students I worked with today -- you're getting it!!

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"A weird mix of pleasure and pain, agony and joy"

The title of today's blog entry is a quote from Victoria, B.C., novelist Bill Gaston, who says: “I can’t imagine not writing, it’s a weird mix of pleasure and pain, agony and joy.”

I've got Gaston on my mind, since tomorrow, at 1 P.M., I'll be talking about his latest novel, The World, on Radio-Canada's Plus qu'on est de fous, plus on lit! How I loved this book, which is about... well... everything! The main character Stuart Price is in terrible trouble, but he is saved by his sense of humour -- and his big, open heart.

I agree with Gaston that writing is "a weird mix of pleasure and pain, agony and joy." I'm about to start the third revision of my book that will be released this coming fall. I'm jittery, I'm excited, I'm hopeful, I'm worried...

This morning, despite the -27 degree C. weather, I went for a run with my husband and told him how I was feeling about facing the next phase of the giant re-write. I said, "I know I've felt this way before, and the only thing to do about it is TO START." You know what he told me? That I sounded WISE!

So, here's to starting something that feels difficult and scary. Despite the weird mix of feelings that writing brings up for me, I wouldn't have it any other way. I am HOOKED ON WRITING. And I hope you are, too!


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"You learn more from being wrong than being right"

Last night, driving home from dinner with a friend, I heard the tail end of a CBC interview with environmental activist Mark Lynas. Lynas told interviewer Jian Ghomeshi: "You learn more from being right than being wrong."

I think it's a brilliant line, don't you?

As soon as I got into the house, I wrote it down so that I would remember to tell it to my students -- and to share it with you, dear blog reader. In fact, I'm even thinking I may try to work the line into my latest writing project.

A novel wouldn't be too interesting if the protagonist was always right. The protagonist in the manuscript I've been labouring over the last few months is in big trouble. Hopefully, the trouble she's gotten herself into will help her learn -- and though I certainly never set out to write a "teachy" book, I do hope that readers will learn from Iris's  predicament.

All this to say: I love a good radio interview and I'm glad I wrote the line down. It's simple and it's true. So much of the time we focus on being right, getting the right answer, but Lynas makes a great point: we don't learn much from being right.

My opa (the Dutch word for grandfather) whom I loved very much once told me something similar. He said, "We don't make mistakes. Our mistakes make us."

My mistakes have certainly made me. What about you?

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Meet Nancy Richler -- I Did!

At a holiday luncheon today, I got to hang out with lots of interesting people, including author Nancy Richler. Nancy is the author of four novels, including The Imposter Bride, which recently made the shortlist for the coveted Giller Prize.

Because I am always thinking of you dear blog reader, I asked Nancy for some writing tips that I could share here. Nancy thinks aspiring writers basically need to do one thing: WRITE! Here's how she put it: "When I started, I never waited for an idea. I still don't wait for an idea. I sit down every morning and I say, 'I have to write.' When I was first starting, I'd describe the cup of coffee I was drinking or I'd give myself little assignments like 'Write about an embarrassing moment.' I got used to writing without worrying about where it was going."

Nancy has begun work on her next novel. "Nothing gets easier," she told me -- which made me feel good because that's my experience, too.

Nancy does not work from an outline. "I follow the voice," she said.

So, if finally getting started on that novel you've always wanted to write is on your to-do list for 2013, try listening for the voice of your narrator (or main character) ... and follow it! Thanks, Nancy, for a great chat! Hope our paths cross again soon!

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The Re-Write -- and my Poetic Side

Even though I'm a writer, I don't often think in similes or metaphors. Maybe because my style is more direct.

But here I am working on what feels like a pretty giant re-write and it's making me think of poetic comparisons. Here are some.

On the hardest days, this manuscript feels like a house that is falling down over my head! My husband advises, "Step back; take a little distance from it." And I say, "Step back? I can't!" Then I tell him about the falling-down-house-feeling. I am, I add, hammering desperately, trying to keep the thing together!

Other days, this manuscript feels more like a badly behaved child. I send it off to school (or in this case to my editor), and I worry that it will get expelled, tossed out for bad behavior!

But on better days (it's early yet, so I can only hope this will be one of those days), this project feels dear and tender, like green shoots emerging from the ground in early March. Of all the fiction projects I have ever worked on, this one comes closest to my own experience.

The thing about writing is this: sometimes it's really tough; sometimes, it goes a little better; and sometimes, well (and this doesn't happen to me too often), it just comes. The trick is staying with it. So I keep hammering away. I keep trying to mother my delinquent. I marvel at those green shoots. 


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Writing for Writing Teachers

I taught writing for nearly a decade before I realized that though I loved teaching, something big was missing in my life. I didn't need to climb a mountaintop or go to an ashram in India to figure out what it was: WRITING! I had loved writing stories when I was a kid, but as I got older, I became so focused on academic writing that I nearly forgot the old pleasure I took in making up stories.

That's why yesterday, I was so excited to offer a workshop called "Writing for Writing Teachers" at this year's Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers' annual convention.

I spent most of the day with a group of English teachers from across the province. We began with writing warm up exercises, but by the end of the day, the participants had begun working on a short piece that might just lead them to a bigger project.

Amy, who teaches English and drama at James Lyng High School here in Montreal, told me her goal is not only to do more writing herself, but also to help build a community of writers at her school. "It's through writing and art that we develop our personality," she said.

Deb, who teaches at Riverview High School in Port Cartier, told me she just finished reading my book Miracleville. She also told me about one of her students, Zach, who turns out to be a fan of my Orca Soundings and Currents novels! Deb will be retiring in June, which means she'll have more time for her own writing. "I know I have a story to tell," Deb said. "It's a matter of finding the time."

The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to find the time for things that matter most to us. For me, that's writing. So if you happen to be a writing teacher reading today's blog entry, maybe it's time for you to find the time to make writing a regular habit. What better example is there to set for our students?

Thanks to my friend, teacher Mary Eva, for encouraging me to participate in the QPAT convention. Thanks to QPAT for having me, and to my workshop participants for working hard and being good sports! And a quick shout out to two of my friends, Sebastian and Pearl, who signed up for the workshop... despite having already heard many of my stories!! 

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Report from Salon du Livre 2012

When I was a little girl, my dad volunteered with an organization called The Lion's Club. At Christmas, the club raised money by selling fruitcakes. I remember going with my dad to the local shopping center and asking strangers to buy fruitcake! (It was quite embarrassing!)

I've started today's blog entry with this story because it turns out the skills I learned selling fruitcakes have come in handy in my career as an author!

This morning, when I was sitting at the signing booth for Courte Echelle, the French-language publisher of two of my books, I basically had to talk to strangers. At least, I did not have to talk them into buying fruitcake!

Luckily, I love meeting new people and I'm not at all shy. So I went right over to people I saw (especially ones who were looking at my two French titles, Poupée and Pris Au Jeu) and said, "Hello, I'm the author of those books!"

So, in today's entry, I'm going to tell you a little about some of the people I met. They included Charles-Vincent Chevalier (that's him next to me int he pic) and Mathieu Vinuesa (wearing the dark scarf), who both work at Centre Gabrielle-Roy, an adult education facility in St. Michel.

Vinuesa, a teacher at the school, explained that some of his students are just learning to read; others are reading proficiently at the Secondary V level. Chevalier is the school's library technician. He described the kind of books his students need: "We like books that deal with contemporary problems." We chatted about why books are important. Chevalier thinks that by reading, the students at his school can learn to communicate more effectively. Vinuesa added something I really liked. He said, "Books can help readers learn how to live."

I also met Laurence Demers and Angélica Stergiopoulos, who are both 15 and students at Ecole Augustin-Morin in Ste. Adele.

The girls (that's them in the 2nd pic) have been friends since last year and both of them love to read. As Stergiopoulos put it, "Reading lets us enter into another universe and discover other stories."

I was signing a copy of Pris Au Jeu for Frédéric Bricault (he's 15 and goes to College Esther-Blondin near Joliette) and because I didn't want to make a mistake when I got to the French part of my inscription, I asked Bricault to proofread!

Bricault told me he is interested in books and movies about gambling; the psychology of people who gamble fascinates him. Here's what I wrote inside his book: "Hope you like my book. J'espere que tu trouveras un bon angle pyschologique!"

As I was packing to go back to school, another author turned up to sign books. It was Charles Prémont, author of a fantasy trilogy that starts with Le Fils du Singe and concludes with Le Fils des Dieux. Prémont, who is also an anthropologist and journalist, told me he is currently at work on a new series set in outer space. I asked Prémont the question I always ask authors -- what advice does he have for aspiring authors? Here's his answer: "Keep on going! It's hard to break in. The first one is the hardest to write."

So, that'll be our motto for today: Keep on going! Here's hoping more of my books gets translated into French. How else can I get myself invited back to Salon du Livre next year?!


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Bonjour from Quebec City

It's me, writing to you today from a little cafe on Rue Saint-Joseph in Quebec City. I spent the day at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie in Beauport working with Madame Blanchet's Secondary III students. Must say it was a whirlwind kind of day -- but fun and stimulating!

I did what I usually do when I meet young writers -- told them about how I got started writing and shared some of my favourite tips (write a lot; read a lot; get ideas when you run or even in the shower; revise revise revise!). I also explained where I got the ideas for some of my novels. For instance, the inspiration for my latest book, Pyro, came from a radio interview I heard several years ago -- the mayor of a town outside Quebec City was talking about a spate of fires in his community and he said how much he wanted to catch whomever was starting those fires. Which got me thinking: WHAT IF HIS OWN SON WAS THE FIRESTARTER?!! And that is basically how Pyro was born... of course, a lot of hard work followed that moment of inspiration. Which was another thing I talked about today -- how writing is basically a lot of hard work, but that it's satisfying and that, for me, the challenge is what brings me back every morning to the computer screen.

I asked the students to write about a memory of being ten years old. Though they only had about 15 minutes for the exercise, I must say I was impressed by their work -- especially considering they were writing in their second language. I asked two of the students for permission to share their opening lines with you in today's blog entry... so here they come:

Tommy began his memory of a day at the hockey rink like this: "I touched his head to see if he was okay." Dominique wrote: "I had a big egg in my hand." Now, what do you think? Don't you want to keep reading those stories? That, mes amis, is the trick to writing. Every sentence has to make your reader want to keep reading.

I'm off now to catch the train home to Montreal. Thanks, Madame Blanchet, for inviting me. And thanks to your students for working so hard!

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I Better Keep Writing Books...

I better keep writing books if I want to keep having book launches!

I thought I'd tell you a little today about the recent launch of Pyro, my latest YA book. The launch took place here on Sunday at the Montreal Firefighters Museum -- and it was a ton of fun!

First, I did a mini writing workshop ("Ways to Ignite Your Writing Flame!") for both kids and adults. If you were there, you'll know what I mean when I say we filled the room with words!

It was really special having the launch at the Firefighters Museum. Special thanks to all the auxiliary firefighters who were on hand to make sure things ran smoothly. An extra special thanks to Steve Garnet, who runs the museum and who gave me the go-ahead to do the launch there. Oh, and another extra special thanks to my niece Claudia Lighter, to whom the book is dedicated, and who did a little speech before my reading. She told the audience, "Put down 50 Shades of Grey and read Pyro!"

I'm posting a couple of  pics here of the launch. The first one is of me and Steve... the second one was taken during the mini workshop.

A lot of solitary work goes into book writing, which makes me especially appreciative of the opportunity to celebrate with my friends and readers.

But ... do I really write so I can keep having book launches? Well... yes... and no. The truth is I write BECAUSE I CAN'T STOP! Hope you feel that way about writing too.

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Virtual Visit to Magazine Writing Class at McGill University

Recently, Richard George Andrews, who works at McGill University's Development and Alumni Relations office, wrote to ask if I'd pop by some Wednesday evening to visit his Magazine Writing class. The course is offered through the McGill Writing Centre. Because this is such a busy period for me, I suggested we do the visit by Skype. And if I may say so myself, it worked out well! The timing was good, too, because we'd agreed to start at around 8 P.M., and our supply of Hallowe'en candy ran out about ten minutes before that!

So, I thought today, I'd tell you about what Richard's students and I discussed. I told them a bit about how I broke into journalism (basically, I was persistent and I started to read the newspaper like a writer, instead of a regular reader, paying special attention to any spots in the paper where I noticed content from freelance writers).

A student named Diana wanted to know what a typical workday is like for me. I warned them I am a little obsessed with writing, so maybe I am not the best example! Then I showed them the shelf in my office where I keep my journals. I wanted them to know that for many years, I have started every single day with a 3-page journal entry. My work in the journal is a way for me to warm up my writing muscles. I can't even bear to imagine a day that doesn't start with my journal (and a little cup of espresso)!!

I also told Diana that while I'm writing, I take many tea breaks. But I explained that, to a casual observer, though those tea breaks might look like I'm slacking off, they are part of my writing process. When I walk downstairs to the kitchen, when I plug in the kettle, when I watch the teabag steep in the hot water... I AM THINKING ABOUT WHAT I AM WRITING. And I've noticed that often, my best ideas come to me when I am fussing with my tea!

Richard wanted to know whether I dream of giving up teaching to write full time. I told him the truth -- that sometimes my schedule does feel too hectic, but that I love all the things I do: teaching, writing fiction, and working as a journalist. You know, over the last years, I've often felt a little wacky when I try to explain that to people, but just this week when I met author Mariko Tamaki (see the previous blog entry to learn more about her), she said something that was true for me too: "I can't turn down interesting work."

So, here's what I wish for Richard's students: May you find lots of interesting work, may your arms tingle at good stories, and may you write what you need to write.

Oh, a word about today's pic. At the end of our Skype session, the students clapped. So I whipped out my camera and asked them to clap again -- so I could capture the moment for you, dear blog reader!

PS: Don't forget you're all invited to the launch of my newest YA novel, Pyro. The party is this Sunday from 2 - 4 P.M. at the Firefighters Museum, 5100 St. Laurent Blvd. I'll be doing a mini writing workshop from 2 - 2:30 ... writers of any age are welcome to join me for that.

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Fired Up By YA Author Mariko Tamaki

I'm just back from a wonderful talk by Mariko Tamaki, who's in town to promote her YA novel, (you) set me on fire

Tamaki spoke at Babar Books in Pointe-Claire. Her talk was sponsored by the Montreal Children's Literature Roundtable. I didn't want to miss it because I am discussing Tamaki's novel on radio (for Rad-Can's plus qu'on est fous, plus qu'on lit! on November 21st). 

Tamaki divides her time between the Bay area in San Francisco and Toronto. She is best known for her graphic novel Skim (illustrated by her cousin Jillian Tamaki), which was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award.

Tamaki told us that when she was a teenager, she was a "bookish nerd." She read everything she could find by Canadian writers Margaret Laurence, Timothy Findlay and Alice Munro. But she said she was also influenced by comedians like Roseanne, Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy. Here's what she had to say about Eddie Murphy: "I think he's a homophobe, but he's also an amazing storyteller."

(you) set me on fire is set at a college residence in an unnamed American city, but Tamaki, who studied at McGill University and lived in residence there, says the book is based on her experiences here in Montreal. Her protagonist, Allison, is 17, and like Tamaki, she's queer. In the story, Allison gets caught up with a friend named Shar, who turns out to be bossy, even cruel.

Tamaki says that as a writer, she has a "continued obsession with teenage girls." In Tamaki's novel, Allison stands by while Shar mistreats another girl who lives in their residence. Tamaki told us, "I am interested in the offense of non-action .... [on the part of] the person who is there and a part of something."

Tamaki told us that working on a graphic novel taught her a lot about how to write. "I'm a better editor because of comic books. In comic books, there's very little room for words."

What fascinates me most about Tamaki and her work is that she is pushing the boundaries of YA fiction. She explained that in Skim, she wanted to explore "the things you can and cannot say." 

I've already read (you) set me on fire. I found it difficult and disturbing, but powerful. Tonight, I bought a copy of Skim, which I plan to start reading in a few minutes.

This must be my week for fiery things. First, I got to meet the author of (you) set me on fire. On Sunday afternoon, I launch my own book Pyro at the Fireman's Museum here in Montreal. If you're in town, consider yourself invited!

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Author Mark Frutkin Comes to Town

Earlier this week, I went to hear Ottawa-based author and poet Mark Frutkin read from his new novel, A Message for the Emperor (Vehicule Press). Frutkin, who has won the Trillium Award, and been nominated for the Governor General's Prize, tends to do a lot of research when he writes a novel. A Message for the Emperor is set in ancient China during the Song Dynasty. The protagonist is a landscape painter named Li Wen.

Because my husband and I had met Mark and his wife Faith when we are at the GritLit festival in Hamilton, Ontario, we made plans to have dinner with them last night. And because I'm always thinking about you, dear blog reader, I asked Mark some questions about his writing process -- and scribbled his answers down on the edge of the paper runner that was across our table.

First, Mark explained that his new book was inspired by Chinese landscape paintings. Mark is an admirer of this style of painting. "I love the feeling of mountains and rivers forever and of the human element being so miniscule," he said.

Mark doesn't do much outlining when he starts a novel. "I usually know where I'm starting and where I end up, but I don't know beforehand how I'll get there. That's the interesting part," he explained. In that way, Mark is a little like his protagonist Li Wen. In A Message for the Emperor, Li Wen also embarks on an important journey, and like his creator, Li Wen knows his destination, but he doesn't know what obstacles and satisfactions he'll encounter on his way.

So here's to obstacles and satisfactions and journeys ... and the feeling of mountains and rivers forever!

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Fun Morning at Mother Teresa Junior High School

'Tis the season for school visits! Today marked my first school visit of the new school year. 

That means I started my day with Monic Farrell's Sec. I English classes at Mother Teresa Junior High. Because I've worked with Miss Farrell's students before, I knew they'd be well prepared -- and they were.

Here's an example. In the first class (that's them with me in today's first pic), I was saying how we writers need to keep our eyes and ears open for interesting stories and characters. Then I asked the class, "What else do we need to hunt for?" A student named Jerushan shot up his hand and gave me the answer I was looking for: DETAILS.

So here's an example of some details I observed at MTJHS today: When I walked up the stairs, I noticed how the building smelled of shampoo. Dee-licious! (I guess a lot of students washed their hair this morning.) I also noticed how several girls in the two classes were wearing unusual bracelets -- neon coloured hair scrunchies they were wearing around their wrists. Apparently this is a MTJHS trend... hmmm... maybe I should use it in an upcoming story. That's because, as I tell students, details help bring stories to life.

I also talked to both groups about how much it has meant to me to write about my mother's story. (I used her story for the basis of my novel What World Is Left.) It turns out that a student named Gregory has an important family story to tell, too. His great-grandfather survived the Armenian holocaust and Gregory seems to know a lot about his great-grandfather's experience and how he was nearly left for dead. Gregory, you've got to write this story!

Today's second pic is of Miss Farrell (I love when teachers do my writing exercises too!) with some of her students. I asked the students to remember back to being ten years old -- and in particular to focus on their sensory memories. There wasn't time to read what everyone had written, but a boy named Chris wrote something so lovely that I asked his permission to share it here. (Thanks, Chris, for giving me the go-ahead.) Chris was writing about his memories of traveling to Greece. You'll see that his writing is simple and evocative: "I tasted feta, smelled cigarette smoke and played with my cousins." Nice, n'est-ce-pas?

So thanks to Miss Farrell's students for being a lively, responsive audience -- and thanks to Miss Farrell for the invite and to school librarian Miss Venditti for sharing her wonderful welcoming library with us this morning (and for giving me some great tips about hot new books for teens!).

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"The truth is, it wasn't a big deal" -- VPR & Adverbs

The title of today's blog entry ("The truth is, it wasn't a big deal") comes from the wonderful short story "One Holy Night" by Sandra Cisneros.

I've been teaching short stories in my Intro. to English class this semester. When we went over this line, one of the students in my class, Jessica, pounced on the word "it," calling out, "Vague pronoun reference!"

I have to admit I was pleased! Since school started in August, I've been trying to drill basic writing rules into my students' heads. In our class, VPR doesn't stand for Vermont Public Radio; it stands for Vague Pronoun Reference. (Though I had to explain to Jessica that once you've mastered the basic rules of grammar, you can go on -- like Sandra Cisneros did here -- to break them!)

Another rule I've been drilling into my students' heads is: Death to Adverbs. I told my students their writing will be stronger if they avoid words that end in "ly" (most adverbs do). On the other hand, I told them that sometimes adverbs are acceptable -- what I want my students to do is catch themselves when use an adverb and ask, "Do I really need that word?"

Today, I found my copy of Stephen King's wise book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I remembered that King was also no fan of adverbs. Here's what King has to say on the subject: "The adverb is not your friend.... Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.... I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs." 

How's that for good writing?

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Do You Think We Can Learn From Other People's Stories?

This semester, one of the courses I am teaching at Marianopolis College here in Montreal is Intro. to College English. Just as class was ending this week, I asked my students: "Do you think we can learn from other people's stories?"

We've already read two stories together: the famous fairy tale "The Story of the Three Little Pigs," and Sandra Cisneros's short story "One Holy Night." In "The Story of the Three Little Pigs," the first two pigs are eaten by the big bad wolf -- all because they didn't use the right materials to build their houses. The third pig is smarter. He learns from the first two pigs' mistakes, and makes his house from bricks.

In "One Holy Night," the narrator falls in love with a man who turns out to be ... well ... a murderer. But we understand, too, why the narrator fell for this guy -- as Cisneros writes, the narrator longed to be loved "like a revolution. Like a religion."

Sometimes, I think we learn best from OUR OWN mistakes. Of course, that method involves a lot of work and sometimes also heartbreak.

But you know what my students answered when I asked, "Do you think we can learn from other people's stories?"

They all called out, "YES!!"

Which made me very happy -- both as a teacher and a writer. And as I told my class, "That's why I read. To learn from stories!"

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Message From a Dutch Reader

Een Andere Wereld, the Dutch language translation of my novel What World Is Left has brought a lot of joy into my life. One of the joys is connecting with Dutch readers. I often think that, had the Second World War not happened, my parents would have stayed in Holland and I'd likely have lived out my life there. So some of the Dutch readers who have contacted me might well have been my friends....

Last week, I had a message from a woman who is also named Monique. She told me she is enjoying Een Andere Wereld a lot, but that, at night, she finds herself having bad dreams about the book.

At first, I didn't know how to respond. I have to admit I was pleased my book is having a big impact on her -- but I also felt badly about the bad dreams. Then I came up with an idea of how I could reply to her.

I decided to tell Monique a little about my mother, whose story I used as the basis for Een Andere Wereld/ What World Is Left. It's true my mother suffered a great deal during her years in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. But what I really wanted Monique to know is that my mother is a happy fun smart lively woman who managed in her own way to overcome her past without ever forgetting about it. In my note to Monique, I told her my mother is "geestig" (not sure I spelled that Dutch word right, but it means funny in a sharp way, which my mum certainly is).

We all go through tough times -- and of course, people who lived through the Holocaust went through especially tough times -- but it's important for the rest of us to know that not only can people survive, but they can emerge whole... altered, that's for sure, but still whole.

Dank u vel, Monique T, for writing to me! My mother sends you her groetjes!

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Back on French Radio, Today in the Company of Author Kim Thuy

You may remember that last winter, I did a number of spots on the Radio Canada literary program, Plus qu'on est de fous, plus qu'on lit!...

Well, guess what? I'm BACK-- this time as a regular columnist! My beat is English Canadian literature, and I'll be reporting and reviewing new releases.

Today, I spoke about C.S. Richardson's lovely new book, The Emperor of Paris. The book is set in the early nineteenth century in Paris and it's a kind of ode to love and literature and the little twists of fate that end up creating our lives. One of the main characters, a butcher named Emile Notre-Dame cannot read or write, but he can tell a great story. He hands over his breads and brioches, "with a smile and a story."

Yesterday, The Emperor of Paris was longlisted for the 2012 Giller Award. Also on the list is Ru by Montreal author Kim Thuy. And Thuy was also on the show today, interviewed by host Marie-Louise Arsenault. 

I've met Thuy before. She's a wonderful funny down-to-earth woman. And today she said some things that were so smart I had to jot them down to share with my students -- and with you, dear blog reader.

Arsenault asked Thuy how she feels about language. Thuy said, for her, working with words "is like playing with Lego blocks." She also shared some wisdom she got long ago from her mother: "Life is a struggle. Sadness leads to defeat."

I love how writing is a combination of work and play. Yes, we writers have to work hard to find the best way to put our thoughts and feelings into words, but we need to play with language, too. Thanks Kim Thuy for reminding us of that!


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Back to School!

It may be sunny and warm outside, but for those of us at Marianopolis College -- it's officially BACK TO SCHOOL!

In today's pic, you can see me with each of my three classes: Intro. to College English (that's the first pic); and two sections of The Stuff of Nonsense.

It's my first fall in the college since 2009 (I've had three fall sabbaticals in a row that allowed me more time for writing). And I have to admit, I was a little reluctant to go back. It is awfully nice sitting right here at my desk and inventing stories. But you know what? I walked into my first class yesterday afternoon -- and I remembered again how much I love teaching and working with young people.

I remember, too, being a first year student at Marianopolis College (some 35 years ago!!) and how excited I was to be there. I think one of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much is that I get to return to that time with my students.

One of the things I told my students is they need to appreciate being at the school -- that we're all privileged to be there. I described to them an elementary school I visited last summer in Kenya. The walls were made of cardboard, the textbooks were old and worn, and more than half of the students had tested positive for HIV-AIDS.

I didn't take a photo of that school because I didn't want to be the gawking foreigner. But I made myself a promise: that I would never forget what I saw and that I'd share the memory with every class I ever taught.

So, I will do my best to take my own advice and appreciate my life at school with my 105 new students. Of course, I cannot deny that my students inspire my stories. So, while my students take notes this semester about class material, I'll be observing them too, listening to how they speak to me and each other, watching their body language (of course!), and trying to imagine what it must feel like to be them.

How else could I ever write books about teenagers?

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Do You Know the Difference Between a Contortionist and an Aerialist?

I had lunch plans today with a contortionist who attends Ecole Nationale de Cirque here in Montreal. That's because I'm doing preliminary research for a new YA manuscript set at a circus school.

As you can expect, I learned a lot in a couple of hours! The first thing I learned is the difference between a contortionist and an aerialist. My new friend, it turns out, is an aerialist -- meaning she performs acrobatics in the air.

Today, I only saw her perform at the table of the vegetarian restaurant we went to! Because she was wearing a skirt, her acrobatics were limited to arm movements. Check out today's pic for a demonstration -- can YOU do that?

So, I bet you want to know some of the interesting stuff she told me. One is that circus students live in a bubble. "We eat, breathe and sleep circus," were her words. Another thing she told me that I found cool and intriguing is that circus students don't see the world the way the rest of us do. "We don't see things as obstacles, like a table or a chair. We see it as something we can play on." THAT MADE ME HAPPY -- both because it helps me understand the circus world a little better -- and also because it's an endorsement of PLAY (something I'm a great fan of.)

Okay, off I go to have dinner with two writer friends, Lori Weber and Jane Barclay. Then tomorrow, I am transformed back into a pumpkin  (did I really say pumpkin?!) ... I meant to say TEACHER. I'll be back to teaching full-time at Marianopolis College. As you can imagine, I'll have loads to blog about over the next 15 weeks.

Next time you see a table or a chair, dear blog reader, try to see it in a new way. I know I'm going to try!

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The Big Re-Read

So every weekday this summer (except when I was away in Holland and then in Maine), I have been working on my boxing story. Yesterday, I finished the first draft. (Insert drum roll here!)

That means the Big Re-Read is officially underway.

Here's what the Big Re-Read means to me: pleasure and pain.

Pleasure happens when I read something I like. It mostly happens when my characters say cool stuff. Only for me, pain is a little more frequent at this stage. Pain happens when I read things that don't feel quite right. Pain also comes when I add more and more items to my "To Fix" list.

The one really good thing is: I've been through this process before. (That's what comes after you've published twelve books.) I am on intimate terms with both the pleasure and the pain. And I know that my "To Fix" list is going to be very long, and that slowly, slowly I'll check items off the list.

There is a Robert Frost line I love: "The only way out is through." That line applies to life itself -- especially in difficult circumstances. But for me, today, the line also applies as I begin the Big Re-Read and the Even Bigger Re-Write. 

You know what else I haven't told you? I'm a little sad not to be writing the first fresh draft anymore. I LOVE MY CHARACTERS IN THIS MANUSCRIPT. ESPECIALLY PRETTY BOY!!

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An Example of How Writing Can Happen in Strange Places...

I often tell my students writing doesn't only happen at a desk.

That being said, I do most of my writing right here -- at my old pine desk upstairs in our lovely old house in Montreal. 

Just about every weekday this summer, I've sat at this desk and tried my best to keep telling the story I've been working on. Some days, the words come easily. More often, it takes a great deal of effort (and time) to get them out.

Yesterday was one of those days when the words took a lot of effort. I spent the first half of the day at the computer. Then, because I had an appointment, I had to stop. I got on my bike and zipped over to where I had to go. The bike ride took about 20 minutes and I honestly didn't spend a second thinking about my story. I thought about other things like: how good it felt to move, how hot it was outside and what good time I was making!

When I finally sat down to wait my turn, a strange and wonderful thing happened. I HAD A WHOLE BUNCH OF IDEAS FOR WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT IN MY CHAPTER. Because I only had the tiniest piece of notepaper handy, I grabbed my pen and covered that little sheet with notes. And when I came home about an hour later and sat down at the computer, the words just flowed.

The moral of this story (in case you need me to point it out to you) is: sometimes it helps to take a break from what you are working on. And while you are taking a break, your brain may keep working -- pretty much without you. TRY IT!!

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Reflecting on the Writing Life... and Look What Came in Today's Mail

Last week, I ran (literally, since I was out for a run) into a colleague who teaches with me at Marianopolis College. I asked her, "What are you going to be doing for the next three weeks?" and she answered, "As little as possible!"

I have to admit her answer got me thinking. That's because I plan to spend the next three weeks (before classes start) by WRITING UP A STORM! I'm only about five chapters from the end of the manuscript I've been working on since May. It's just a first draft, but my goal is to get it all "out" before school starts. Then, in the first few weeks of school, I'll slowly start the first revision.

I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I WASN'T OBSESSED WITH STORIES! Maybe I'd be spending the next few weeks doing as little as possible, too. All this storytelling is hard work -- and it does cut into my socializing opportunities. (Lately, I've had to decline a number of coffee and ice cream dates!) On the other hand, NOTHING I DO MAKES ME FEEL AS HAPPY AS WRITING. Not even cooking -- or running -- or even boxing! (You do know, don't you, that the new manuscript is about a girl boxer?!)

So, just on a day when I was wondering about my driven-ness and why it is I can't seem to live without having a story in my life, a lovely package arrives in the mail. And inside this lovely package, which comes from my friends at Orca Book Publishers, is an even lovelier thing that seems to me to be a message that I should keep on telling stories: the most amazing beautiful new edition of my novel, Finding Elmo. On the cover is a glossy black cockatoo -- the Elmo of my imagination! I'm posting the pic here too, so you can join me in admiring Elmo!

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I Love it When I Turn on the Radio and ...

I love it when I turn on the radio and they just happen to be talking about the subject I am writing about! It feels like serendipity (ahh what a lovely-sounding word, don't you agree?) ... it feels like it was meant to be ....  Best of all, it feels like someone somewhere is telling me I've been spending the last three months working on the right project!

This happened yesterday afternoon when I turned on the radio in the car and CBC radio book maven Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing American author André Dubus III. Dubus is best known for his novel House of Sand and Fog, but Wachtel was interviewing him about his memoir, Townie, in which he talks a lot about his troubled relationship with his dad and about... get ready, insert drum roll here ... BOXING!!

Did you know my latest project is a YA novel about a girl boxer? Did you know I have been taking once-a-week private boxing lessons with a trainer named Big Ron? Did you know that the trainer in my book is going to be named... Big Ron?

Anyway, back to Andre Dubus III. During the interview, he said so many interesting things about boxing I had to rush out of the car and write them all down. He talked about the feeling he used to have after a street fight, describing it like a hangover. Later, he elaborated, saying the feeling was a kind of "spiritual remorse."

But here's one more treat for you for today. Wachtel asked Dubus whether there are similarities between writing and boxing. How yummy, I thought to myself when I heard this question. Dubus's answer did not disappoint me. He said, "You step into the unknown. You hope everything will turn out okay."

Ahhh, that makes me happy -- both as a boxer (okay, not a very good one, but still) and as a writer. Good luck to you, dear blog reader, as you step into the unknown, too!


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Celebrating Literacy

I'm just back from a party in Old Montreal where we celebrated the launch of the Montreal branch of Room to Read. Room to Read is a non-profit organization that promotes reading by opening libraries and supplying books to impoverished children in developing countries. What makes the program especially interesting is that the books are written in the children's own languages (think Khmer, Nepalese, Tsonga and Bundeli!) and the authors and illustrators come from the countries where the children live. 

John Wood, the founder of Room to Read, came from New York to join the party. That's him at the podium in tonight's pic. Wood was the marketing director at Microsoft, but he gave up that job after traveling to Nepal and visiting a school that had 450 students -- and no books. Wood went on to write his own book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World.

Tonight, Wood told us that Room to Read has already touched the lives of six million youngsters. The organization's goal is to read 10 million youngsters by 2015. Room to Read has a special interest in educating girls, since in too many countries, girls have less educational opportunities than boys. My favourite line from Wood's speech tonight was when he told us, "When the world is full of educated, butt-kicking women, things will change!" Way to go, John Wood -- and way to go, Room to Read! 

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Ever Notice How Stories Lead to More Stories?

  One of the things I love most about stories is the way they lead to other stories.

That helps explain today's pic. In it, I'm sitting outside a coffee shop (see the Bandaid on my nose? I wish I could say I had a small BOXING injury... but alas, it's only a booboo caused by my glasses jiggling when I run) with Talya Pardo, the librarian at Solomon Schechter Academy.

Here's the story behind the pic: A few weeks ago, Talya read my piece in the Gazette about my trip to Holland to launch Een Andere Wereld, the Dutch-language translation of What World Is Left. In the article, I wrote a lot about my opa (grandfather) Jo Spier, who was an artist in Holland and whose talent helped keep our family alive during the Holocaust.

Well, a day or two later, Talya was "weeding" books in her library, looking for ones that were not taken out often. She happened to come across The Story of Louise Pasteur, written by Alida Sims Malkus -- and then she noticed that the biography was illustrated by Jo Spier! And because it was one of the books that was not circulating much, she decided to GIVE IT TO ME!

I never knew my opa illustrated this book -- and am quite excited to have it. I am reading it slowly and of course, enjoying the illustrations.

During our coffee date, Talya told me why she thinks books matter so much to kids: "As a child, books were my escape. They expanded my vocabulary and my knowledge of the world. Books tease your imagination. They make your imagination go -- and keep going!"

Of course, I asked Talya what book she's reading now. She told me it's Robert Jordan's The Gathering Storm -- it's the 11th in a series. Talya says that at her school, quest series and realistic adventures books are especially popular. She has noticed though that "some kids seem to find it hard to suspend their disbelief." We talked about why that might be, and wondered if it could have something to do with T.V. Sounds to me like those kids need to do even more reading -- so they can have their imaginations "teased"!

Hey, Talya, thanks a million for my new old book. I'm glad my story led to this story!


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What Happens When Two English Teachers and a Librarian Get Together for Lunch?

You know what happens when two English teachers and a librarian get together for lunch? They have a blast! (Not to mention that they have loads to talk about.)

I had lunch today with Jean Sancton, who teaches Grade Six at Forest Hill Senior Elementary and the school librarian Maria Cavaiuolo. That's us in today's pic. Jean is in the middle; Maria is on the right. (I met Jean and Maria last year during a wonderful school visit.) And while you're examining the pic, that lovely grey bicycle in the background is mine -- I call it my "Grey Goose."

I WASN'T PLANNING to take notes during lunch -- I was just planning to be a regular person and relax -- only then the conversation got so interesting I reached into my purse for my pen and for a napkin that turned out to be a surprisingly reliable note sheet.

Jean was telling us about an end-of-term writing assignment she gave to her Grade Six students: "I asked them to write to me because it means a lot to me." Jean said she'll always treasure the letters she received. She also noticed that many of them talked about enjoying the same things: "They liked being given time to read on their own. They also liked being read to." And guess what was one of the books they enjoyed most?! The Middle of Everywhere by ... Yours Truly!

Maria told us how she is reading and enjoying Stephen King's new book 11/22/63. "I like it," she said, "because it has a time travel element. There's a character in it, a high school teacher, who has a chance to go back and change something."

I asked Maria what her favourite time of day is for reading. She told me it was morning. (I save my reading time for the evening.) Here's how Maria described the ideal start to her day: "I read on the deck or in the kitchen in the full sunshine. It feels like a luxury."

So, here's my question for you today: What is your favourite time to read?


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I Love Synopses -- Today, Anyhow!

You may recall that two entries ago, I complained about having to write a synopsis (that is basically a fancy word for "outline") for my new writing project.

What happened in between, you must be wondering, that made me entitle today's entry, "I Love Synopses -- Today, Anyhow!"

What happened is I wrote the danged thing. I was grumpy; it took me nearly a full day. I ate half a bar of top-quality chocolate. BUT by golly I DID IT!

And you know what? It was HELPFUL. I tell my students that having an outline is like having a road map. It helps you get where you're going. On the other hand, having an outline (or a map) can be constraining, too. You may miss out on some interesting spots during your road trip. 

I think the reason it worked out for me this time is because I had already written nearly 12 chapters of my manuscript before I tackled the outline. And the good news is that now that it's written, I feel less anxious about the project and IT'S GOING MORE QUICKLY (which is a fine thing because in about six weeks from now this writer is going to turn back into a pumpkin -- did I say pumpkin? I meant to say CEGEP teacher!)

So, today's question: To outline or not to outline? What, dear blog reader, is your opinion?

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Why I Can't Stop Writing

I'm not saying writing is easy. It isn't -- at least not for me.

I'm not saying writing is fun. Though sometimes it can be.

What I am saying is I can't stop.

I write because it's the only way I have to make sense of big overwhelming things.

If you were reading this blog while I was away in Holland for the launch of Een Andere Wereld, the Dutch language translation of my book What World Is Left, you probably sensed that I was overwhelmed by the experience of being back with my parents in the country where they came from -- and where part of the novel is set.

Every night in Holland, I had trouble falling asleep. It wasn't jet lag; it was because there was so much to think about, and process, and find a place for in my mind and in my heart.

But I fixed that on the airplane ride home. That was when I started writing about the experience I shared with my parents in Holland. And guess what? The story I wrote appeared in today's Gazette -- and I can't tell you how glad I am that I wrote it. Because it helped me process a very big, very overwhelming experience. Here's the link to the story. And here's my question for you today: Do you have a story you need to process? Have you thought about putting it into words?

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"Why does everyone hate writing synopses?"

The title of today's blog entry, "Why does everyone hate writing synopses?" comes from an email I got yesterday from Sarah Harvey, one of my editors at Orca Book Publishers.

I have a love-hate relationship with synopses, also known as outlines. And apparently, I'm not alone.

I'm about ten chapters into the project I've been working on this summer. The good news is Sarah likes (she actually used the word "loving") what I've done so far (Yippee! Double yippee because Sarah is a tough critic!). The bad news (well, it's not exactly bad, but let's just say it presents a challenge) is she wants a chapter outline or synopsis of the project.

Some writers swear by outlines. They do detailed outlines before they begin a project, and then they let their outlines guide them through. Other writers, I'm thinking now of Neil Bissoondath, whom I once interviewed for the Montreal Gazette, start their novels by writing just one word, or one sentence, and then seeing what happens after that!

I am somewhere in between. Sometimes, when I write fiction, I feel like a miner, digging my way very slowly, but steadily in the dark, with just a small headlamp to illuminate my way.

But, I've done outlines before and I'm psyching myself up to do one now. I told Sarah she'd have it by the end of next week. This curly-haired miner has some serious digging to do!


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Special Day in Holland: Part II

Today we are in Leiden, my father's hometown.

Last night, I spoke at the Musea Zutphen about my book Een Andere Wereld -- the Dutch language translation of What World Is Left.

Just before my talk, we had a "dol gezellig" (there is no real English translation for the word "gezellig" -- let's just it's cozier than our word "cozy") dinner with Joris de Leur, the publisher at De Fontein, my Dutch publishing house, and also with my Erlijne Runia and her boyfriend Pim, who is also in publishing. And to make the evening even more complete, my brother Mike, who is Montreal's Honorary Consult of the Netherlands, was there with his wife Penny!


Here's a pic of the audience -- with me standing behind my parents. On the left side of the pic, you can see my brother and Penny... and that's Joris sitting in the middle.

Over dinner, Joris made a small speech. I was in heaven again! And I got a chance to tell Joris and Erlijne how I felt they had taken such careful sensitive care of this story that means so much to me and my family.

I want to tell you more about some of the people who were at last night's event, but my dad wants me to go for a walk with him to see the house where he grew up. (I can't very well say no to that, can I?) But I will post one more pic before we go. Have a look at the audience in this pic. Check out their faces, okay?

I'd say my talk went really well... but I can't claim that those people you see in the pic were looking like that FOR ME. That's because I snapped the pic when my mum went up to the microphone and told a story about her own grandmother and then began singing some funny old Dutch songs. As we would say in Canada, the audience "lapped it up"!

Can you tell this has been a special week? How about I ever going to go back to ordinary civilian life? xo from Holland

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Special Day in Holland: Part I

Hi blog readers! If you have looked at my blog before, you'll know that I do many school visits and so it's not so unusual that I post a pic of myself with a group of students. But today's pic is VERY SPECIAL! That's because it was taken at my first school visit ever in the Netherlands. I spent part of the afternoon at Isendoorn College, which is quite close to the medieval town of Zutphen where we are staying and where my opa was born.

I asked the students whether they had ever heard of my opa, Jo Spier -- and one of them told me he knows of Jo Spierlaan, a street in Zutphen!

A student named Florian (that's him in the middle of the pic, wearing a black T-shirt) asked, "Do you have a story of your own?" I thought that was a great question and you know what, Florian? In all my school visits, no one ever asked me that.

(I told him the answer is yes, but that book is not scheduled to come out till fall 2013!)

What, you must be asking yourself, am I doing in this second pic?

Why, smelling my opa's old paints of course!! After the school visit, Christiaan, the curator of Musea Zutphen, brought me and my sister-in-law Penny (I didn't tell you yet, but my brother Mike and my sister-in-law have joined our party now too!) to the museum climate-controlled storage room where they have some of Opa's belongings.

When I was a little girl, I used to stand by Opa's drafting table in New York (he moved there a few years after the war) and watch him draw and paint. Those old paints I am smelling in the pic still have a faint odor -- and when I smelled them, I was briefly transported back in time to those happy days.

On the way back from the museum to the hotel, Penny noticed MY BOOK smack-in-the-middle of a store window here in Zutphen. I got a kindly young man to snap a photo so you have evidence!

Tonight, we're having dinner with my Dutch publisher and editor, then I speak at the museum... but I think I'll wait till tomorrow to submit that report to you, dear blog reader. I don't want to tire you out with all my adventures!!

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Nieuws from Holland!

  Hello hello, blog readers! First, for those of you in Holland, I hope I haven't misspelled "nieuws" -- if I did, send along the correction as soon as possible, okay?

This week continues to be oh-so-wonderful. That's me and my dad in the first pic. We went for a walk yesterday in Amsterdam and when we passed a bookstore, it was his idea for me to go in and ask whether they had Een Andere Wereld -- and as you can see, they did! On our walk, my dad said, "Imagine what it means to us that we left Holland more than 50 years ago and now to have our Canadian daughter publish a book in our language." Also, if you ever wondered where I get my wild hair from, now you have the answer!


This second picture was taken today at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I am with my friend Lies Schippers, project manager for the department of education at the Anne Frank House. I'd met Lies in Montreal a few years ago when she came to talk about The Search, a graphic novel she co-authored.

It was Lies who invited me to the Anne Frank House today for a series of meetings. First, I met with Lies and Teresien de Silva, head of the collections department. Together, the three of us talked about the connection between objects and people and stories. As Teresien told me, "Sometimes you don't know what a seemingly insignificant item can mean."

Later, I met with about a dozen educators working at the Anne Frank House. They included Doyle Stevick, a professor from the University of South Carolina, who is spending a month in Amsterdam. "In education," Stevick told me, "we know how to transmit facts, but changing attitudes is very difficult. The Anne Frank House does that as well as any place I have seen."

Over lunch, Lies described how she and her team work together to create their graphic novels. She says that the process "from conception to birth" takes about two years and involves many meetings. The team begins by identifying the theme they want to work on, then they move to character and plot. Sometimes, there are disagreements. "But," said Lies, "we always look for consensus. I think that's a Dutch thing."

This afternoon, I took the train to Zutphen where I met my parents (they came by car from Amsterdam this morning). Why, you are probably asking, have I posted a pic of my mum on the phone? That's because I rushed from the train station to the hotel to do a radio interview (partly in Dutch!!) for Omroep Vlardingen. At the end, the host asked to speak to my mum -- and I wanted to record the moment because she was just wonderful. Imagine that she said on live radio, "My daughter is a good person -- and good-looking, too!!" (I think I've warned you that she is a little wacky!!)

And in today's last pic (don't worry, this blog entry is almost over!!), you can see my parents and Christiaan te Strake, the curator of Musea Zutphen, where I will be speaking tomorrow night. Zutphen is the birthplace of my opa (that's the Dutch word for grandfather), the Dutch artist Jo Spier.

My talk coincides with a retrospective exhibit of my opa's work together with the work of another Dutch artist, Peter Van Straaten, whose work was heavily influenced by my opa's.

Today's pic is taken in front of a restaurant just outside of town. My mum remembered this building fondly because many years ago, her grandfather lived here. It was, I gather, a kind of seniors' residence in the days before there were seniors' residences.

Christiaan knows so much about my opa! At one point, my mum was telling a story and she said to Christiaan, "Don't think I'm obsessed with my father" -- to which Christiaan responded, "But I am!"



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Interviews in Amsterdam

  Usually, I'm the one with the notepad, scribbling madly! But this week, journalists have been coming to our hotel to interview me and my mum about Een Andere Wereld, the Dutch language translation of What World Is Left.

I included today's pic to give you some evidence of what fun we are having. In this photo, you can see my parents with journalist Marjon Kok, who came to speak to us yesterday. I just e-mailed Marjon a copy of the photo too, with the subject heading: "Do you always kiss your interview subjects -- or only sometimes?"

You see, the thing about my mum is that she is impossible to resist! And when you hear her story you understand that she went through a lot, but that she still has a great sense of humour and, this is most miraculous of all, an optimistic view of life. She is also a little wacky -- but in the very best sense! For example, the other morning, she got annoyed with my father (he was telling her what to do and she hates that) and she hit him (not very hard) with her cane! The other funny thing that happened after that was that a woman witnessed the scene and said to my mother, "Good for you!!"

Another journalist Channa Kalmann also came to speak with us yesterday -- and I'd say she was smitten too with my mum (and also kissed her good-bye!). For me, it's fun to be at the other side of the table this week. Marjon and Channa both had to rush back to their desks to write their stories; I got to relax in the afternoon and meet up with relatives and friends.

Did I already mention that I am feeling really Dutch? In Montreal, I have no cousins. Here, I have many -- yesterday, I spent part of the afternoon with my cousin Josine. We even look alike and we have similar taste in dresses! A few times, we seemed to be thinking the same thing. Her grandmother was very close with my grandmother (not only were they related, but they were good friends too) ... and at the same moment, when we were walking along a beautiful canal, Josine and I said to each other, "Our grandmothers would have been happy to see us here now!"

Some days are difficult, of course; some days, everything feels like a gift. That's what the last few days have been like for me. Wishing you, dear blog readers, days that feel like gifts!

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Meet Someone Very Special!

I always tell my students to avoid adverbs like "very." That being said, I am allowing myself to break my own rule today by introducing you to someone VERY special. That's her with me in today's pic: Hanneke Majoor. Hanneke translated my novel What World Is Left into Dutch, so that the book now has a new life as Een Andere Wereld.

I first "met" Hanneke late last fall (it might even have been December), when she began working on the translation. I'm sure that the two of us must have exchanged at least 50 e-mails and maybe more. Hanneke had AMAZING questions about details in the book. Often, I had to go back for answers to my mother, upon whom the story is based. My father, who handles e-mail at their house, got involved too!

But somewhere over the course of all those e-mails, Hanneke and I became friends! That was confirmed yesterday when we met in person for the first time. Have you ever really looked forward to meeting a person? If you're lucky, the person turns out to be as wonderful as you expected. But... if you're really really (today is a day for many adverbs!!) lucky, you like the person even MORE in person than you did before you met her. THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED TO ME!!

When I read aloud from Een Andere Wereld yesterday, I had the feeling that my book was even better in Dutch!! The funny thing is that if my family had not moved to Canada, I would have written the book in Dutch -- of course, then, I would not have met Hanneke!

I also had the pleasure of meeting Hanneke's husband Peter du Gardijn, whom I also knew a little because of things that Hanneke had told me about him -- such as that he got hurt last year while skating (don't worry, he made a complete recovery!). Peter is an author too. I am looking forward to reading his poetry collection Onder de Dieren and his novel Nachtzwemmen. Since they are both in Dutch, I will have to go very "langsam" (slowly)... Dutch friends, if you're reading this, please forgive my poor spelling!

Okay, time for me call it a day (another happy one!) in Amsterdam. Will try to post another update soon!


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Writing to You From Heaven!

Goeje dag from AMSTERDAM! The reason I told you I am writing from heaven is that I am here -- with both my parents -- to celebrate the Dutch launch of Een Andere Wereld (the Dutch translation of my book, What World Is Left).

See that man with me in the third pic? He's my cousin Marteyn, a law professor at the University of Leiden, and the woman smiling at us is my Tante Lies. About 50 people came out today for my presentation at the Jewish Historical Museum here in Amsterdam. Many of them were old friends of my parents -- and relatives, of course.

I'm so happy and excited to be here I can hardly write a word! On the other hand, I have many things I want to tell you, dear blog reader. So many stories are connected to the story of this book... here's one for today. You may know that What World Is Left is a historical novel based on my mum's childhood experiences in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp. My mother, who's now 83, has forgotten many things about what happened to her during the war. But one story which she remembered and which I used in my book is about a little boy who arrived late in the war to Theresienstadt. His name was Ronald and he was also from Holland. My mum kept an eye out for the little boy and in a way, he gave her hope for the future. Well, guess what? Ronald WAS AT THE MUSEUM TODAY. When I finished speaking, he also said a few words! (That is Ronald in the first picture today.)

In today's second picture, you can see me with my mum in front of the Hollandsche Schouwburg -- that is the building in Holland where my mum was deported from in 1943. Today was the first time she stepped foot in the Schouwburg since then. (The Schouwburg is now part of the Jewish Museum here.) You can imagine that it was an emotional visit -- my mum managed not to cry, but I did. In a way, I think I cried for her. But you know what? I didn't cry out of sorrow, I cried out of happiness. The tears came when Annemiek Gringold, the Schouwburg historian, showed us a copy of an old registration card with my mother's information on it. At the top of the card, someone had written the words: "In leven!" (with an exclamation mark). That means "Survived!" (I found the exclamation mark important too!!)

Tonight, we're having dinner with Hanneke Majoor, whom I met for the first time this morning. Hanneke translated my book into Dutch and I loved her before I met her because she was so kind and sensitive and understood exactly how much the project means to me and to my family. We'll also meet her husband Peter, a Dutch author. Another friend from the De Fontein publishing company is coming too.

I'll try to keep writing blog entries all week to keep you posted about our adventures. Wednesday, I go to the Anne Frank House. Thursday, we launch the book at the museum in Zutphen, my grandfather's hometown.

This morning, in the journal I write in every morning, I said how grateful I am to so so many people for helping me tell this story first in English and now in Dutch. Most of all, I have to thank my mum -- she taught me everything I know about storytelling and about courage!

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Guess Who Won the Combat du Livre at Ecole Antoine-de-Saint-Exupéry?

I know, I know... you figured out the answer to the question, "Guess who won the Combat du Livre at Ecole-de-Saint-Exupéry?" : ME! (Why else would I have asked the question!)

You may remember, dear blog reader, that I was invited to Ecole-de-Saint-Exupéry in May to defend my book, Poupée -- the French language translation of On the Game. Today's pic is from that event. In it, I am standing next to publisher Robert Soulières and author Michel J. Lévesque.

The students had to vote on several French language YA books and it was a fiery battle. Apparently, I managed to sway some of the undecided vote with my lively speech -- even if it was delivered with an English accent. So, thanks to all of you at Ecole-de-Saint-Exupéry. I didn't tell you, but I was hoping my book might win!

Speaking of accents, I am gearing up for my big trip to Holland, where I'll be doing several events in connection with the Dutch translation of What World Is Left, now christened Een Andere Wereld in Holland. My parents are coming, too, and will join me at most of the readings and talks I'll be doing. So, today, they came over to my house for lunch -- and to listen to me read -- in Dutch -- from the book.

The reviews of my performance were mixed. My father thought I was not very good and took too long; my mother thought I did a great job (mothers always think that, don't they?) Not to worry if you are in Holland and coming to hear me speak and read -- I still have several days to practice. I may not speak Dutch very well, but I do "fersta" (means "understand") almost everything. Which makes me an excellent undercover agent.

Do I sound excited about all this? If I do, it's because I AM! I promise to write some blog entries from Holland and to post pics, too. And I'll also be reporting on the experience for the Montreal Gazette. FUN!!!

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Coming Soon -- Pyro!

I thought you might like to have a sneak peek at the cover of Pyro -- it'll be out this coming fall.

Pretty cool, no? Actually, I should say pretty hot!

I got interested in the topic of fire when we bought a house with a fireplace. One of my favourite things is that moment when the fire catches -- and whoosh! the flames turn orange and start crackling.

The next thing that happened was that I started asking students (my own, and others in the classes I have visited) about their experiences with fire. I was especially interested in the kids who have started fires. I wrote down everything they told me, and stashed it all in a file marked "fire." And then, well, the story started to grow in my mind. And a narrator came to me. This one's name is Franklin Westcott and my editor, Melanie Jeffs, says he's snarky. In fact, she says that my characters are getting snarkier with every book I write!

Of course, I had to do other research too. Luckily, I managed to get hold of Dr. Kenneth Fineman, a California psychologist who treats young fire-starters. He was kind enough to make time to talk to me last summer. Dr. Fineman helped me understand what motivates kids to start fires and how they can be helped to stop. I used what he told me to develop my story.

Let me know what you think of the book cover. I LOVE it!

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Objects Have Stories Too...

It isn't only people who have stories; objects do, too.

Today, I have a special story to tell you. It's about this little brass monkey-man charm I'm holding in my hand in today's pic.

My mum gave me the charm two weeks ago, on my 52nd birthday.

I had a vague memory of seeing this charm when my sister and I used to play jewelry store with my mum's baubles. But I never knew its story until now.

As you may know if you have read my book What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's childhood experiences during World War II, my mum was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp called Theresienstadt. She was deported there shortly before her 14th birthday.

She remembers that on the day of her 14th birthday, she was sitting on a stoop in the concentration camp and crying. Another prisoner -- my mum remembers only that she was a beautiful  German Jewish woman -- asked my mum what was wrong. My mum told her, "It's my birthday and no one gave me a gift."

That's when the woman took this charm from her necklace and gave it to my mum.

Last week, my mum had a birthday, too. She turned 83. That means that for nearly 70 years, she has kept this little monkey-man with her. Now it's mine... and I feel a great responsibility to care for it and wear it and share its story. Almost certainly, the woman who gave my mother the charm perished during the Holocaust (relatively few people survived Theresienstadt), but the woman's kindness and generosity live on in this small story.

Can you see why I love stories so much?


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Antonine Maillet -- Part II

Do you ever notice how sometimes the right person comes along at just the right time? That's how I feel about Quebec author Antonine Maillet.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Antonine on-stage two weekends ago for a St. James Literary Society event. Even though I was the one asking most of the questions, I was also busy writing down her answers. I don't ever want to forget some of the wise things Antonine had to tell us about writing.

Here are some of them! Antonine, who is Acadian, writes about life in French-speaking New Brunswick and she explained how important it is to write about what we know. Of course, she put it better than that! She said, "Every writer -- the smallest, the biggest -- they all have to discuss their particular vision. They are the only ones who have seen that small, little corner of life." She also talked about why she likes to write about simple people, like the washerwoman who is the narrator of her famous novel La Sagouine. "It's because," she said, "the little people are never in literature and they belong in literature." (Hey, if you're one of my Journalism students reading this... remember how we worked on coming up with interview subjects who normally have no voice?!)

Antonine was leaving for a week in New Brunswick the day after our interview, but yesterday, my phone rang and it was HER! She had read my book, What World Is Left (the one that has recently been released in Holland as Een Andere Wereld). Antonine told me she had not been able to put down the book! I said how much her call meant to me, and I told her that I've recently begun working on a new manuscript and am struggling with it, the way I always do when I write.

Antonine said just the right thing to me -- and perhaps it will be just the right thing for you to hear, too, dear blog reader. She said, "You are a writer!" Hope her message speaks to you, too!


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Spending My Birthday With Antonine Maillet

Lucky me! I am spending my birthday afternoon with wonderful fun super-talented Quebec author Antonine Maillet. She is the only author I know who has a street named after her. (Apparently, this is quite confusing for cab drivers. ("You live on Rue Antonine Maillet? But what did you say your name was?")

I'm interviewing Antonine live on-stage this afternoon for a meeting of the St. James Literary Society. We had a pre-interview last week and almost as soon as Antonine answered the door (on Rue Antonine Maillet), I had the feeling I'd known her forever... and not just because I'd been reading (en français, her powerful book, La Sagouine, which is narrated by a feisty, outspoken cleaning lady). 

Antonine told me many interesting things about herself and her work as an author. I'll have more to tell you after this afternoon's interview (look for another entry later this week). But for now, I'll tell you my favourite thing she had to say -- and it has something to do with today's rather unusual photo. Antonine and I were discussing the role of imagination in writing, and I asked whether she had tips to help the average person improve his or her imagination. Antonine's answer was "Le pif!" and she pointed to her nose when she said it. Then she explained that the sense of smell can help a writer (or anybody else for that matter) return to old memories. She also said, and this pleased me very much, that a writer needs to have "a nose for people."

Antonine sets most of her stories in French New Brunswick, where she was raised and where she still spends her summers. "I write what I know and what I don't know that I know. My inspiration comes from here," she said, tapping her chest, "from my inside."

I'm going to pick up Antonine so we can drive together to this afternoon's event. Lucky me that I get a little more time with her on this beautiful perfect May day in Montreal!

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YA Author Sylvia McNicoll Spends Mother's Day in Montreal


That's prolific and super fun YA author Sylvia McNicoll with her fan Sidney in today's pic.

Sylvia was at the Chapter's Pointe-Claire store on Mother's Day to launch her latest YA novel, Crush. Candy. Corpse. Great title, n'est-ce-pas?

Sylvia brought a batch of Mars Bar squares with her from Toronto. She used the squares and her books to entice young readers over to her signing table! Though Sylvia was busy meeting readers, I did manage to slip in a question just for you, dear blog reader. I told Sylvia how I collect writing tips, but that because I've been doing this for some time, she had to come up with a really cool one. Sylvia did not let me down. Here's her tip: "My newest tool for writing is a camera. It helps me improve my descriptions. I've never been too good at descriptions." Hey, Sylvia, I think I'm going to try out that tip myself.

I also chatted up Sylvia's kind husband Bob. I asked him whether he had tips on how to stay happily married to a writer. (Bob and Sylvia have been married for 38 years... though they had a small dispute about how many years it had been exactly. In the end, Bob got the number right.) Here's Bob's advice for people who are married to writers: "Be flexible, be supportive, and not too critical!"

When Sylvia overheard our conversation, she nearly forgot all about her Mars Bar squares and her young fans. It turns out that Sylvia had her own advice for spouses of writers: "Never be the first reader. If you read it, say, 'It's wonderful!' Anything else is risking your marriage!'"

That's it for today's blog entry. I'm about to go cuddle up with Crush. Candy. Corpse.


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Kindred Spirit Caroline Pignat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Belle Visite à St. Pascal!

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Combat de Livres -- a French blog entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Author Alyson Richman Comes to Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Fun Day at Heritage Regional High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Writer Rina Singh and a Busload of Students Come to Town


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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Biting Stories: Meet Alyxandra Harvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2581 Hits

Lunch with Catherine Austen -- and Launch of Quebec Roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Meet Mahtab Narsimhan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gearing Up for Blue Met 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lori Weber Returns to Marianopolis

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

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

I hate to walk past the third floor lounge

of my school, where

the cool kids

hang out.

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

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

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

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





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I Got to Be a Book Yesterday!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lots of Familiar Faces at Beaconsfield High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of My Favourite Writers Comes to Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Wanted to Practice My French, Mais...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to reading your writing!


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We All Need a (March) Break Sometimes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading, Reading and More Reading!

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

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

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

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

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Thinking About "Kindred Spirits"

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

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

Aren't we all?

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

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

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

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

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

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Art Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fun on French Radio

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

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

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

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

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

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Du Fun -- en Français!

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

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

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

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

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



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My Day Flies By at Laurentian Regional High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy Morning at Westmount Park School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St. Thomas, Marianopolis and the Power of Stories

Hello hello dear blog readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another New Beginning!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy Morning in the Library at St. Thomas High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Little Magic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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"Knowing When to Walk Away"

Happy 2012, dear blog readers!

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

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

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

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

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

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Great Way to Start A Day: At Kuper Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lots of Freds and One Dear Geraldine!

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

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

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

Now, I need to explain about all the Freds!

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

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

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

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


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Meet Philippe Béha!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Moniques Are Back From the Gaspé!

The Moniques?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Starting to Feel Like I Belong at Forest Hill Senior!

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

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

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

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

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

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New Friends at Forest Hill Senior Elementary School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Super Great Day at FACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another Great Boxing Book!

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

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

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

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

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

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En mots et en images/Words and Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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