monique polak

Monique Polak's Books


Back in the Classroom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Loved Robert Lipsyte's The Contender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shout Out to Dylan in Sudbury, Ontario

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Listening, Telling and Writing

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

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

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

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

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Stan Lee on Writing

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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Six of My Heroes are Coming for Spaghetti Tonight!

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

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

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

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

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

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My Morning at the Fire Station

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

Why, spying, of course!!

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

Did you figure it out yet?

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

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

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

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What Do You Think of This Book Cover?

Or should I say "couverture"?!!

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

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On Sabbatical!

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

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

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

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

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

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Meet Anne-Sophie Tilly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dutch Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ice Cream Date with Three Celebrities

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

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

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

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

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


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Happy Writing Day

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

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

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

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

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

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"Keep Your Hero in Trouble"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lemonade with Nancy Gow, Picture Book Author

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

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

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

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

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Nine New Friends

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

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

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

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

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"Creativity is a continual surprise" -- Ray Bradbury

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

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

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

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

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


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The Things that Keep Me Up at Night

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

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

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

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

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


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Elephants in Africa -- and AJL Convention in Montreal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jambo from Mount Kenya

Jambo means hello in Swahili!

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

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

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

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

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

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Webinar & Off On Safari!!

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

That's me, today.

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

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

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

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


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Report from the Imagine-A-Story Conference

How did it already get to be Wednesday?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Visiting a Writers' Collective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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"Library of the Early Mind"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try to see the movie, too!



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I Made A Good Friend Cry Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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See All These People Listening So Attentively?!

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

Guess what they happen to be listening to?

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

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

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

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I Scrinch My Eyes When I'm Happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aislin & Co. Come to Supper

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

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

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

Are you ready?

Did you guess yet?

Body language!!

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

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

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

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Busy Week for Canadian Children's Writers!

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

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

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

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

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


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Busy Days at Blue Met

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another Exciting Day at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Is This Student Hiding Her Writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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





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"I'll Take You There"

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

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

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

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Return Visit to John Abbott College & a small something lovely

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Two Great Groups at St. Thomas High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Holocaust Symposium at Vanier College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Hi Louisiana!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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Arizona Doesn't Feel So Far Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Je Pratique Mon Français!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Working With Future Teachers

This morning, I worked with Sorel Friedman's education students at UQAM. Sorel's class has been reading my novel What World Is Left and I was excited to be able to discuss the book with future teachers. I told them how I believe it's important that we make students understand that writing is hard work, but that it can also bring tremendous satisfaction.

Sorel and her class have been talking a lot about the intersection between truth and fiction. I tried to explain that for me, writing fiction is actually a way to get at the truth. Later, a student named Gaetane asked, "What makes a memoir such as Anne Frank's diary 'literature?'" I have to admit her question made me pause (something I rarely do!!) -- I wondered out loud whether the answer had something to do with Anne Frank's use of language, but then I decided, too, that it had to do with her honesty and the power of her voice.

Anyway, I love days where students get me thinking ... and also feeling.

Which is what happened in Sorel's classroom today. Working with future teachers like this group makes me feel good about what's in store for our young people... and it also makes me feel a little better about aging. When it comes time for me to retire from teaching, I know there will be many talented and energetic teachers to keep doing the work I love so much.

Speaking of talent -- I also want to boast a little about my own Journalism students at Marianopolis. Today, two of them agreed to read their personal essays in class. A student named Cristina made some of us cry with the honesty of her piece, and then a student named Katherine made us laugh with her story about overdosing on filet mignon! Pretty amazing that the sheer power of words can cause a group of 35 or so of us to feel such a range of emotion. So here's to language and writing and teaching and learning. Today's the kind of day I feel really privileged to do the things I do! Hope you do too!

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The Air Was Thick at Westwood Senior High

Hello blog readers!

I'm just back from a visit to Westwood Senior High School in Hudson, Quebec. When I say "the air was thick," I'm not describing the weather conditions -- I'm describing the story conditions. I honestly felt stories in the air from the moment I entered the building! (I actually entered twice since I had to move my car, which required me coming back into the school through a side door --  and you know what? I felt different stories in that part of the building!)

First, I met with the school's Book Club. These students meet once a month to hang out, discuss books, and chat with people like me. The Book Club is run by librarian Gwen Murray, who told me, "I love my job!" (Way to go, Mrs. Murray!)

A friend of mine, school counselor Karen Nesbitt, also sat in on my lunchtime visit. The students were receptive and focused. In today's first pic, you can meet one of them -- Amy. I got the feeling from her body language that writing means a lot to Amy. After my talk, the two of us chatted a little about how we can use difficult experiences and feelings to inform our work. I explained that though I have never written, in my fiction, directly about my own personal troubles, I have found ways to work that material -- especially the feelings -- into my books. I think that when we do this, we make our characters come more to life. It is, I suppose, a little like composing music as a way to express our thoughts and emotions.

After lunch, I worked with James Roy's enriched Grade 10 English class. I don't think I realized at first what a super group this was. That's because they were initially a little more chatty than I like. I decided that since I only had an hour and ten minutes with this group I'd be strict and insist on absolute attention (Monique Polak, police officer!!)... then I got into my talk... and before I was midway through, I suddenly realized how exceptionally bright and sensitive these young people were... and that there were several who clearly had an interest in creative work and telling stories. And then I realized that this was the last period on a Friday afternoon -- which made me admire them even more!!

There was just enough time for two short, slightly weird writing exercises. Oh, what a treat it is for a teacher and writer to be in a room with 35 young people, all WRITING AWAY!!!

A student named Gabrielle (wearing huge hoop earrings... I must remember to use that in a book) told me she could relate to my passion for writing. That's because she feels the same way about Latin and ballroom dancing.

And if you're wondering about today's second pic... that's Olivier wearing a pair of glasses he designed in his art class. Very cool, no? They give new meaning to the term "wire frames"!

So special thanks to Westwood for inviting me to visit, to Mr. Roy for getting things organized, to him and Mrs. Murray for sharing their most lovely talented students with me, to Mrs. Nesbitt for joining today's Book Club -- and to all the students I met. Oh, and to Alivia (did I spell that right?) and Charlotte for your chaperone services.

Take advantage of the thick air at your school. Find the stories -- then tell them! Big hug from Monique

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Return Visit to Sunshine Academy

Hello hello, dear blog readers! I am just back from my return visit to Sunshine Academy in Dollard-des-Ormeaux. (I was there earlier this winter to do writing workshops.) Today, I worked with a Grade 6 and a Grade 4 class, and then I stayed around to meet with individual young writers over lunch. Usually, I only get one or two students when I offer an extra writing session like that, but today I had about FIFTEEN!! So that was exciting -- and also inspiring because some of the stories I read were really good --imaginative, with lively narrators, and full of interesting details that made me want to keep reading.

If you're wondering who's who in today's pics, let me explain: in the top pic, I am with two students named Tabitha and Kelly. I asked Tabitha to be in the pic because I decided she looks as if she could be child (notice the curly hair!!). Kelly, her friend, is one of the students who turned up for our lunchtime extra session.

In the second pic, that's me with super librarian Mrs. Susan -- thanks Mrs. Susan for the invite and for getting the students so excited about my visits. Thanks, too, to Principal Marie Wahba, with whom I had a quick fun conversation at recess.

So, here are a few details about my visit to Sunshine (I am always reminding students to use details to bring their stories to life, so now it's my turn): a student named Denis demonstrated that he is a good observer when he noticed I was wearing the same necklace that he saw on the spine of my book What World Is Left. A student named Kiely was writing the word "Candy" on her arm.

When I was talking about secrets with the Grade 4 group, a student named Mia asked, "So 'Don't keep secrets?' or 'Do?"" -- and I told her my theory: we writers need to UNCOVER secrets as part of our storytelling work.

I'll end with a few notes about what happened during the lunchtime session. A student named Kayla is writing in the same kind of journal I use (hardcover with black splotches on it) -- Kayla is four chapters into her own novel and I can tell it's going well. I love the energy in her narrrator's voice. Jasmine is working on a story that starts with a letter written from a detention center (very cool, Jasmine!). Salyna is writing a first-person account having to deal with friendships in her own life, and Adrian has come up with an imaginary town peopled by some fascinating characters.

So, usually my job when I do school visits is to inspire young writers, but you know what happened today? The young writers at Sunshine Academy inspired ME! A big thanks to all of you. And KEEP WRITING!!!!

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En francais!

Aujourd'hui, je vous écris en francais, cher lecteur de mon blog, car je veux parler un peu de Poupée, la très belle traduction de mon livre On the Game. Poupée vient de sortir. Le livre est traduit par Hélène Pilotto, et publie par Courte Echelle, un publicateur ici a Montreal.

How is my French so far? If your French is better than mine, please send me any corrections ASAP!

The reason I am thinking so much about Poupée is that I spent part of this afternoon contacting Hélène Pilotto. I wanted to thank her for the wonderful job she did translating the book -- and I also wanted to know whether she was game to try and do some interviews together. Hélène replied, via e-mail, that she tends to be a little shy. She also remarked that in general, translators are behind-the-scenes-sort-of-people. But she did say she'd be willing to do this kind of work if we get the opportunity.

I should mention, too, that my friend and fellow CEGEP teacher Lori Weber also has a French translation out with Courte Echelle. Her book is called Klepto (same name in English) and both Poupée and Klepto are being released as part of Courte Echelle's new Parkour series.

What I find exciting is that a whole new world seems to be opening up for me. I have lived in Montreal all my life and though I speak French and sometimes do interviews in French, most of my days happen in English. So today I say "un grand merci" and "enchantée" to the team at Courte Echelle and to Hélène Pilotto. Thanks for making my world "un peu plus grand"!

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My Old Dollhouse

What in the world, you may well be asking yourself, does Monique's old dollhouse have anything to do with writing?

But it does. I mentioned my old dollhouse (one of my favourite childhood toys) last week in my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College here in Montreal. My students are working on writing Chapter One of a junior novel (aged for readers who are about 11 to 14 years old) and I was explaining how my students can shift their characters from one small scene to another. I remembered (out loud), how I used to use my dollhouse to tell stories about the plastic people who lived in it. And I remember how as a child, I hated having to move those plastic people from one room to the other. Dragging them around on their plastic feet slowed my stories, disrupting the flow.

As a writer, I've sometimes felt the same way. So I have a simple trick to share with you today, dear blog reader. If you want to shift a scene, JUST DO IT. A trick I like to use is to simply add three stars (***) after one paragraph ends and I want to go someplace else with my story. This way, there is no need to drag my characters around on their plastic feet. ("Sean walked from the living room to the kitchen" or "Sean ran all the way to school.") Speaking of plastic feet, another thing we writers need to do is make sure our characters are real, not plastic. But that is the subject of another journal entry.

Beautiful day here in Montreal. I'm off for a run, then on to school...  to turn back into a teacher. Hope wherever you are, you're enjoying your day!

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The Air Was Thick With Stories

I often tell students that, to me, "The air feels thick with stories." That's because no matter who we are, we all have stories living inside us.

This morning, the air felt especially thick to me. I was at Pius X Adult Centre, working with a group of about 100 adult learners. Almost all of them have come to Canada from faraway places including Mexico, Bulgaria and Pakistan. And luckily for us, they have brought their stories with them.

That's Keo with me in today's pic. He is a Buddhist monk who was born in Cambodia, and who's now working at a Buddhist temple in Riviere-des-Prairies. Let's just say I haven't had too many Buddhist monks in my classes! (Thanks to Mandeep for taking our pic.)

I also met Nasir, who's from Pakistan, and who told the group he has been working on a book having to do with smiling. Great topic, Nasir, and I wish you luck with it. Nasir understands that it is important to write regularly. He says he's been working on his book almost daily for nearly six years. When he asked what to do about writer's block, I suggested several things: that he take a shower (warm water on my head often does the trick for me), go for a brisk walk, or best of all, just keep writing... even if it is only to complain on the page ("I have writer's block. I hate when this happens. I just hate it!!").

Another student named Simon, who comes from Bulgaria, expressed his concern that though he may have a great story to tell, he may not have the ability to express himself well enough to tell  it. I told him I think the story is more important than the style. I also pointed out that if he sticks with his project, and has a positive attitude, he stands a better chance of succeeding than if he gives up before he's even started.

Though I love working with teenagers, it was a special treat to meet with a group of adults this morning. Many thanks to librarian Cathy Boyle for inviting me again to Pius X. You guys are wonderful. Now get started on your stories!!

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Three Cheers for Bridget P in Huntersville, North Carolina!

Now I must admit I have never met Bridget P. But the reason I am sending out three cheers to her is that, as far as I know, she is the first teenager in the world to read my upcoming book, Miracleville. And guess what? She liked it. A lot!!

I happen to know all this because Bridget P. goes to Lake Norman Charter School in Huntersville, North Carolina, where she is part of the teen reading club. Lake Norman is one of 16 American schools taking part in the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA)'s YA Galley/Teens' Top Ten program. Students involved in the program receive galley copies (that means advanced reading copies which are distributed before a book's official publication date) of upcoming books. And Bridget liked Miracleville enough to rate it "hard to imagine a better book"!!!

Here's what she said: "The most compelling part... is ... when Ani starts to accept herself for who she is and not worry about what others think." I had the feeling from reading Bridget's review that she really "got" what I was trying to do in the book: have Ani grapple not only with faith, but also with who she is as a person.

When I work on a book, I try to keep in mind an imaginary reader -- someone who's bright and funny and has a lively mind. But it is a very special treat to know that your book has touched a real live teenager named Bridget P, who lives in Huntersville, North Carolina!

Because Bridget also commented that she really liked the cover of the new book, I've posted it here again for you to see. I love the cover, too, Bridget. I danced around my living room when I first saw it!

So here's to Bridget and also to Kathy Corbiere, the enthusiastic media specialist at Lake Norman Charter, who runs the school's teen book club. I wish you all, Bridget and Kathy C and my other dear blog readers, and myself, too, loads more happy reading and writing!!

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Reflections on a Week in Havana

We spent March break in Havana -- and because Internet access was difficult, I've gone longer than usual without a blog entry. (Hope you haven't been too lonely, dear blog reader.)

Today, I thought I'd reflect a little on the importance of taking some time off every once in a while. If you know me, you'll know I am a very go-go-go person. But I have to admit that this semester, between being back at school full-time and trying to keep up with the business of writing, I have been feeling a little worn-out. So March break couldn't have come at a better time!

Most Canadians who visit Cuba head for the beaches, but we thought we'd explore Havana instead. It's a beautiful, but crumbling city. I don't think I've ever seen such poverty. And yet, there's music everywhere. My two favourite moments of the trip? One was when we passed an old man in the street who was singing to himself -- and he had such a beautiful voice it made our hearts ache. The other occurred in another street -- there was music coming from a little restaurant and a young Cuban couple walked by, and the woman started spontaneously to jiggle her hips and dance. To me, both moments showed that even in difficult circumstances (most Cubans cannot afford basic necessities), people have a need for beauty and creativity.

There was another incident I'll never forget. On one of our daily runs, we were accompanied by a small homeless dog with short legs, but a big personality. It worried me that he was following so closely at our feet, especially since we were in an area with a lot of car traffic. (If you've read my book The Middle of Everywhere, you'll understand why I worry about dogs and vehicles.) So I decided to turn back towards our hotel. My husband wanted to continue running along the seaside, where the traffic was heavier. The little dog (let's call him Perro, which is Spanish for dog) stopped in his tracks. He looked at me, then he turned and looked at my husband. Then he looked back at me, then back at my husband...

and then he followed my husband! (Silly boy!!!)

I got to watch that little fellow's decision-making process.

In the end, my husband and Perro caught back up with me. I brought Perro a bowl of water from our hotel. He was a little nervous when I got close to him, but he drank that water mighty quickly. I went into the hotel to return the bowl... when I came out, Perro had disappeared into the streets of Old Havana. He doesn't have an easy life either, but as my husband pointed out, this little homeless dog still wanted to run and play. Run and play and sing and dance. All, I think, are medicine for the soul.

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Tingling Shoulders

Have I told you that this strange thing happens to me when I hear a great story?

My shoulders start to TINGLE.

When that happens, I know it's time to find my paper and pen and write down whatever story I just heard.

This afternoon, I visited two Journalism classes at John Abbott College and told the students about my tingling ability!! I also told them that sometimes I feel like a scavenger bird, swooping down when I smell a meaty story.

The Journalism students I met are taught by Deirdre King and Gayle Irwin, both passionate teachers who know a lot about the field. And because many of their students are taking Creative Arts and Languages, Deirdre and Gayle also asked me to talk a little about my work as a fiction writer.

Journalists aim to report the truth. And in our own way, fiction writers do the same. Through made-up stories, we try to get to the heart of things, to what is most important, to what we need and what we hope our readers will need, too.

Here's wishing you, dear blog readers, tingles (or whatever sign your body gives you that you're in the vicinity of a great story!!).

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Meet the Queen of Weird Writing Exercises

I am the Queen of Weird Writing Exercises. And sometimes, they work!

Today was my final visit to Rosemere High School, where I have been doing a series of writing workshops. So, I tried one of the weird exercises I keep in my bag of tricks. I asked students to write with their non-dominant hand. That means righties work with their left hands, and lefties use their right hands. The theory is that using the left hand forces us to access the right side of the brain, which is believed to be the center of creativity.

I tried the exercise a couple of times this morning. It went particularly well in Mrs. Lewkowicz's class. (It also went well with Mrs. Artiss's students.) While Mrs. Lewkowicz's young writers were working, I circulated in the classroom and because I'm snoopy (a useful trait in a writer!), I tried to peek and see what the students were writing.

I came across one little piece that was so lovely I asked its author -- Catherine C -- whether she would let me share it with you in today's blog entry. Fortunately for you, dear blog reader, Catherine said yes. Here's what she wrote using her left hand:

"This hand is weak. It has been abandoned and unused. It has watched its twin be favoured all its life. It is hurt, but no one notices."

I found myself very moved by Catherine C's words and I wonder if she might write a story, not just about a hand, but about a person who feels the way her hand does. I know I'd want to read it.

One tip: if you try writing with your non-dominant hand, make sure to transcribe what you've written when you're done, using your dominant hand... otherwise, chances are high you might not be able to read what you wrote. Which would be a terrible shame now, wouldn't it?

Special thanks to all my new friends at Rosemere High School. You guys were great! And an extra-special thanks to Mrs. Lewkowicz for organizing the workshops. You're the best, Mrs. L!



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Changing Places

Usually, I'm the one who gets to ask the questions! But today Rosel Kim (that's her with me in today's pic) popped by my office at Marianopolis College to interview me. But before she left, I managed to ask Rosel some questions so that I could tell you all about her, dear blog reader.

Rosel works as an English monitor at the college's Learning Resources Centre. She is also a poet and a busy blogger. Her blog, found on her website, focuses on women artists. Rosel told me she got the idea for the blog when she read an article about how male authors get way more book review attention than female ones. "There was a pie chart in the magazine and it was really startling," Rosel told me.

Since Rosel began her blog in November, she has interviewed a female artist almost every week. "I wanted to create a network of emerging and established artists," she said.

I asked Rosel what the most important thing is that she has learned from interviewing women artists. Here's what she told me: "That to make it as an artist, you have to be persistent. And that it's okay to have a day job."

Sure makes sense to me!

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Lunch With a Young Writer Named Alex

Now I didn't EAT lunch with a young writer named Alex. I SPENT lunchtime with him. That's because I was back at Rosemere High -- doing my fourth of five author visits at the school this winter -- and I'd offered to meet with young writers over the lunch break.

Alex brought me a story he'd written. In it, he tells his own modern version of a Greek myth. We looked over the piece together and I suggested some ways to improve it. One thing I pointed out was that he might use fewer words in some of his sentences. The trick, I told him, is to say what he means to say -- quickly and clearly, without wasting any words.

Alex went on to TELL me two stories: one about his life at school, and one about his life at home. I really liked both stories and encouraged him to start writing the one about school. And you know what? He did! And you know what else? He got his new piece off to a fine start.

So today I want to say three cheers for stories and storytelling! And four cheers for Alex, whose company I much enjoyed at lunch.

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Meet Kathleen Winter!

Today, Montreal-based author Kathleen Winter came to speak to us at Marianopolis College. Winter, the author of the much-acclaimed* novel, Annabel, put all of us in a great mood. That's because she was so frank with us, sharing the challenges she has faced during her career, and because she offered a number of super, practical writing tips. 

Winter told us she spent about 14 years writing before she sold her first novel (which is Annabel): "I have seven unpublished novels under my bed."  She also told us she could wallpaper a room with rejection letters. But she said she had a moment of realization during this period when her work was being rejected: "I realized there must be something I needed to do to improve. I started to look at rejection as a way to ask, 'How can I be better?'"

Winter explained that though Annabel tells the story of an unusual person -- someone who is transgendered -- her goal was to make the book universal. She said she wanted to explore, "something we all share: that we have a real self that gets squashed."

As for writing tips, Winter said she organizes with her mind, but writes with her body. She went on to explain that when she's not sure what will happen next in her story, she gets up from her desk and lets her unconscious mind do some of the work: "I'm asking a question. I feel it with the body."

One of my favourite moments today during Winter's talk was when she was talking about the character of the dad in Annabel. She said, "When I first met him in my mind...." I thought that that was a gorgeous way of putting things and also, for me, very touching. Thanks to her imagination, the character was somehow transformed into someone real.

Here's to Kathleen Winter -- thanks for a super talk -- and to the many characters we'll all still get to meet in our own work and in others' wonderful stories!

*Annabel was nominated for the 2010 Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction.

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"The Best Way to Get Started Is To Get Started"

Today's quote ("The best way to get started is to get started") comes from Montreal picture book author and journalist Jane Barclay. Jane's most recent picture book is Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion, winner of the 2010 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Picture Book Award. Jane was speaking at Marianopolis College today and my three classes came to hear her talk.

Jane shared many tips and I thought I'd mention some of them in today's blog entry. On the subject of how to get started, Jane recommended writing that first sentence -- and then seeing what happens. "That first sentence takes you in a certain direction," she said.

She also said it helps her to break down a large project into smaller parts and to get those done one by one. I was a little surprised when Jane told us that editing is one of her favourite stages of the writing process. (I know Jane quite well, but I never knew that about her!). "Editing is cleaning and polishing," she told us, "it's cutting out the unnecessary."

Jane was also very honest about what writing means to her. She that if she has a problem, she tends to turn to writing as a way to sort it out. She also talked about the challenges and possible complications of writing personal essays, especially those that deal with the people we love: "You have to be prepared to stand by your words."

Perhaps most importantly of all, Jane told us, "You have a voice. Be honest and use it."

Thanks, Jane for coming to visit on such a winter-y day and for sharing your wisdom and your spirit with us!



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Sunshiny Day

It's only a little bit sunny out today in Montreal, but the day was sunshiny for me since I spent most of it at an elementary school called Sunshine Academy in Dollard-des-Ormeaux.

I worked with three classes: Mrs. Pedicelli's Grade 4's; Mrs. Petosa's Grade 3's; and Miss Boulos's Grade 5's (though Miss Boulos was absent and Miss Kouri was in charge instead). My visit was organized by librarian extraordinaire Miss Susan.

You know how I'm always telling everyone to be OBSERVANT? Well, I made an interesting observation of my own in Mrs. Pedicelli's class. I noticed that a boy named Dylan keeps a packet of ketchup in  his pencil case. (In my time, I have snoop-ily inspected the insides of many pencil cases, but this was the first time I spotted ketchup!!) Then I uncovered an interesting story: many of the kids in the class keep ketchup packets in their pencil cases. Dylan says he likes to throw his up in the air and catch it; Kelly likes to smear ketchup on her finger and pretend it's blood. I think a story about kids and ketchup could be fun!

I told Mrs. Petosa's class that, like the Inuit students I have met in my travels to Nunavik, I am also a hunter. Then I asked Mrs. Petosa's students what they think I hunt for. The answer I had in mind was STORIES. Only a student named Julien came up with another very good answer: WORDS. You're quite right, Julien, we writers (and by that I mean every one of us who does any kind of writing, so that includes students, too!) need to HUNT for the RIGHT WORDS!

The Grade 5 gang really responded well when I read them some bits of my books Home Invasion and What World Is Left. I was inspired to read from What World Is Left (a novel about the Holocaust and based on my own mum's experience during World War II) because I noticed several posters on the wall about Anne Frank. (Did I ever tell you my mum knew Anne Frank? They attended the same school in Amsterdam and were in the same grade.) When I told the Grade 5's that I write every single day, a student named Adrian told us he's as serious about swimming as I am about writing. Even in winter, Adrian swims five times a week.

So here's to Sunshine (both the school and in our sky!) and to dedication to things we love to do.

I'll be back again at Sunshine Academy on March 18. I'll make sure to stay through lunch in case any of you students at Sunshine want to show me the stories you're working on. Have a great weekend wherever you are!

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Day Two: Rosemere High School

Hi blog readers!

First, I want to say that I never got as many comments as I did following last week's visit to Honoré Mercier School. Thanks to all of you for being in touch. I will try to imagine your faces the next time I get a little discouraged during the writing process... and that'll help me keep on writing!!

I spent today at Rosemere High School. It was my second of five visits I'll be making there this winter.

I worked with three classes (that's my first group in the pic to the left -- note how hard they are working on a writing exercise!) as well as the school's Book Club (that's me and librarian Madame Plante with the Book Club members in the second pic. I am squeezing the shoulders of a very bright boy named Mikael!).

I did my best to inspire students to write and I also shared some of my tried-and-true writing tips. But because I am a kind of SPY, I also observed the students at Rosemere High. Amongst my observations: a student named Melissa who has a habit of shredding paper into tiny squares (I have never met a human shredder before!!); and a student named Amanda who matches her nail polish with her clothes (today she was wearing an egg-yolk yellow top). I also told the students to write down FUNNY things that happen, since these can possibly be used in stories, too. When I was telling Mrs. Weir's class about my book 121 Express, which is based on a real bus where the kids go crazy every afternoon, I asked Mrs. Weir's students what they thought I brought with me when I took the bus myself. "Advil!" a student named Kelly replied, and we all cracked up.

The Book Club students had read my book The Middle of Everywhere and were eager to learn more about life in the north. Mrs. Weinstein's students had also read the book; they, too, had good questions -- and were especially interested in the relationship between fact and fiction (Did I really see a polar bear? Well... I have to admit... I didn't!! That's where IMAGINATION and RESEARCH come in!) Mrs. Weinstein's students also impressed me because they knew my favourite writing rule (thanks to Mrs. W): "Show; don't tell!"

When I asked Mrs. Lewkowicz's class where they can go to find stories, a student named Alexina pointed at her head. I thought that was a great answer! But you know what else? There are stories EVERYWHERE, ALL AROUND YOU. In addition to going inside your head and using your IMAGINATION, you can also use your powers of observation and your interviewing skills to find even more stories.

I'd write more, but hey, I've got an assignment I'm supposed to be working on for The Gazette. Whatever school you go to, wherever you are, even if you're not a student any more... good luck finding stories, and especially the one story you really need to write!!

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Lots to Tell You About My Day at Honore Mercier School!

Hello, hello, dear blog readers! So I'm just back from a happy busy day at Honoré Mercier School in St. Leonard. In fact, I've got so much to tell you that I hardly know where to begin! But, as I was telling the students today, every story needs a beginning, so here goes: The first thing I saw at Honoré Mercier were some amazing posters made by students in Grade Five. (You can see the posters and the students who made them in the second of today's pics. Honestly, I think some of the posters are just as nice as the covers on some of my books!)

In the first pic, you will meet Gabriele. I was on the look-out for him all day since his big brother Marco is one of my students at Marianopolis. And Gabriele looks like Marco, too! So I made sure to get a pic of the two of us -- we wanted to surprise Marco when he next checks out this blog! (Hi Marco!!)

The students at Honore Mercier are really focused, well-behaved and smart. I even worked with kids in pre-K and kindergarten -- and they were keen to learn about how writers need to be observant. I think they enjoyed when I asked them to share their observations about the gym where I was doing my talks. One boy noticed how the floor had a particular smell! And you know what else was fun about talking to the littlest kids? THEY CAME ROUND TO HUG ME AFTERWARDS!! You can be sure this does not happen at college!!!

Here are some other highlights of my day. The girls in Grades One and Two were wearing some amazing headbands. One of them was pink with sparkles -- I must say it made me wish I was young again and could wear such a dazzling hairband! Speaking of smells, when I was receiving hugs from the K and pre-K students, I noticed how one boy's T-shirt smelled of delicious fresh-washed laundry!! During the period before lunch, the Grades 3 and 4 students had many terrific questions and comments. Massimo wanted to know if I write on a computer or by hand. (The answer is both. Sometimes, I find that if I'm getting a little stuck on the computer, it helps to switch to writing by hand.) When I was talking about how I sometimes get good ideas when I am waking up or falling asleep, a clever student named Seth came up with a new word: "sleepwriting." Hey, Seth, I love that word!! Another student named Tyler said: "I've tried writing a book and it's a lot of hard work." Good for you, Tyler! You sound like a true writer. It is hard work and you mustn't let that stop you. I, for one, enjoy hard work. In fact, if things are too easy, I get tired of them quickly.

I finished my day with the Grades 5 and 6 students. They were a delightful audience and I didn't need to train them in good body language. Almost all of them were taking notes and looking interested.

A special thank you to librarian Mr. Walter for inviting me to the school. Principal Mrs. Manos (do you know she was named Principal of the Year?) really encourages students to do their best in both the arts and sciences. Thanks also to vice-principal Mrs. Sammarco for helping to organize Literacy Week. And a special thank you to Angelina Di Zanno, a parent volunteer at the school, who was my chaperone all day, and whom I feel as if I've known a lot longer than just a day!!

To my new friends at Honoré Mercier, enjoy the privilege of going to such a dynamic school where so many good things are happening. Remember -- stay out of trouble! But if trouble ever strikes, remember you can use it in your stories. Stay in touch. Happy reading and writing!!

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Meet One More Class!

book cover

In today's pic, you'll meet my "Stuff of Nonsense" Humanities class. They're my Monday and Wednesday 8:15 group. They look pretty lively, don't they -- especially for such early-risers? 

I bet you are wondering what in the world happens in a course called "Stuff of Nonsense." Well, we study the underlying meaning of nonsense. Today, we analyzed a joke about a teen and her mum. I warned the students in the class that by about Week Four of this term, they will no longer be able to simply laugh at a joke -- that's because they'll be ANALYZING it. In other words, I'll be ruining jokes for them. (Not to worry -- it's only a temporary effect -- by the end of the term they'll be analyzing jokes and laughing at them at more or less the same time.)

I am also trying to load another pic for you -- it's the cover of Poupée, the French translation of my YA novel On the Game -- due out next month with La Courte Echelle. And it's such a great cover, too. I really want you to see it! Only the file is too big and I am too confused to figure out how to make it smaller. I JUST FIGURED OUT A WAY TO DO IT. (I'll admit it's not perfect photography on my part, but hey, I get points for effort and endurance!)

That's it for today's blog entry. I've got to go read and write!!

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Happy Day at Rosemere High School

I spent today at Rosemere High School, where I worked with two lively Secondary I classes. My visit was sponsored by a program called Culture in the Schools and organized by Rosemere High English teacher Freda Lewkowicz. I was excited to meet the students and also Freda, who, because she writes for newspapers including The Gazette -- usually on the Op-Ed page -- I felt as if I already knew!

So, let me tell you a little about today's pics: The first two were taken during my morning session. In the top pic, you'll see two students named Lee-ann and Anjolina pretending to read my book Scarred! (I told the students I was getting a little tired of group photos for the blog, and so the girls suggested this pic instead.) In the second pic, you'll see the students with their teacher Miss Fazio. Because Miss Fazio is so young-looking, I'd better point her out: she's in the middle, wearing a grey sweater.

You are probably wondering about the last picture: an arm with a lot of writing on it. This literary limb belongs to a student named Stephanie, who was in my afternoon group. As I told the students, I am always snooping for stories and characters and details -- I thought Stephanie's arm was very cool -- a kind of work of art. Some other things I snooped out today: a student named Alyssa who loves the colour purple (she was wearing a purple hoodie, using a purple eraser and her watch was ... you guessed it... purple!); a student named Dominique, who told us her mom runs a daycare (we discussed how a daycare could make an interesting setting for a story, especially a story told by a teenage narrator whose mom just happens to run a daycare ("What do you have access to?" See Sunday's blog entry if you don't know what I'm talking about!).

The afternoon class I worked with is taught by Mrs. Weir. But I found out something really interesting about this group -- they've had several teachers since school started. Hmm, that gets me thinking... wouldn't you like to read about that class?

I'll end today's blog entry with a funny moment. I always bring one of each of my books with me when I do a writing workshop. A guy named Kevin looked at the books (there are 11 of them so far), and asked, "These are the ONLY books you wrote?" To which I said, "Hey, Kevin, there's 11 of 'em. Isn't that good enough?!!" The answer is apparently not. Well,  there's good news, Kevin: I've got another book coming out this spring!

I'll be back at Rosemere on Feb. 1 since I'm doing a series of workshops with students there. I'm already looking forward to my return visit. Have a good weekend wherever you are... and good luck snooping for stories!!

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Meet Two of My Classes

Either you are thinking that the young people in today's pics are very very lucky -- imagine spending four hours with me every week for the next 15 weeks... or else you think they are very unlucky (for the same reason!!). In the first pic, you can meet my Journalism class. In the bottom pic, you can meet my Writing for Children students.

I was thinking that these could work as "before" photos (as in "before and after" photos in which a plain woman (or man) is transformed into a great beauty. As you can see, my students are already very good looking! I'm interested in a different sort of transformation... an internal one. You see, some of these young people are going to turn into writers. And for me, that's a very exciting process to be part of!

I have to admit I was just a wee bit sorry to return to teaching this week... there is, after all, something to be said for an eight-month sabbatical. (Think of snowy days when a stay-at-home writer can stay-at-home in her flannel PJs all day long!!) But you know what? All  my students this term (there's another group -- my Stuff of Nonsense class and I'll try to get their pic for you next week) strike me as bright and interested and interesting. And you know what I am? Lucky to be their teacher!

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Back to School!

Except for having to get up a little too early, I actually enjoyed being back in the classroom today after an eight month absence.

I made students in my first class do a stretching exercise -- to prove the point that it feels good to stretch (they weren't so sure, so I had them test it out... and then I told them to keep stretching until they agreed it felt good!!). I was trying to show my class the importance of stretching intellectually, so I tried using the example of physical stretching.

My first class was "Stuff of Nonsense," and I'm just in from teaching "Writing for Children." At the start of the semester, I often talk about body language. I asked students whether they knew the term in poker for when someone's body language reveals that he is, for example, bluffing or holding valuable cards. A student named Marc called out the word I wanted: "Tell!" .... which got me thinking how body language can TELL us information during poker, and it can also help us TELL our stories when we write them. For me, a lot of life is about telling, as in "What's the best story you can tell?" I grew up in a noisy family with many good storytellers. If you wanted attention (and a moment or two of relative quiet from your relatives), you needed to have the best possible story. That may be partly why I became a writer...

I also asked students in my second class whether they love the sounds of words. I have to admit, they looked at me like I was a little wacky for even asking that question. (I thought of it because I had just used the word "judicious," advising the class to "make judicious use of the intelligent nod," and I just love sound of the word "judicious." It sounds... well... juicy and delicious!)

Well, that's all you're getting from me today, dear blog readers. Though I'm a little tired after my first day back at school, I am planning to try and do just a wee bit of writing and reading before dinner. Hope you're stretching (physically and mentally), and watching for TELLS of all kinds, and nodding judiciously (this makes us look intelligent) and saying (and writing) words that are just plain fun to say!!

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Always Thinking of You, Dear Blog Reader

Even on the last day of my eight-month sabbatical from teaching at Marianopolis College, I managed to think of you, dear blog reader!

I spent most of today snowshoeing at Doncaster Park in Ste-Adele. And because I was with three visual artists, my friend Thomas Kneubuhler, and his friends Andreas Rutkauskas and Jessica Auer, there was a lot of talk about creative stuff, especially photography. (There were also, as you can imagine, several photo-taking stops!!) Andreas, who teaches at Vanier College and Concordia University, said something really interesting that I thought applies not only to photography, but also to writing (that's when I thought to myself, "Hey,  I should mention that in a blog entry.") Here's what it was: Andreas says he often tells his photography students to consider what sorts of things they have "access to" and that they should share this access with their viewers.

Now, usually, I'd have a pen and paper in my pocket or purse, but all I had with me today was an extra pair of mitts. So, just for you, I made a point of remembering Andreas's wise remark. And here's something for us all to do: consider what sorts of things we have "access to" -- worlds that others might know little about. Maybe that'll lead to a subject for a photo -- or a story. 

Let me know if Andreas's trick works for you!

And one more thing that connects photography and writing" Jessica told me she rarely goes anywhere without her camera... I had explained that I get up early to write three pages in my journal every single day, so Jessica said, "My taking pictures every day is like you writing in your journal." Which means we all need to PRACTICE. Hey check out Thomas's, Andreas's, and Jessica's websites (I've given you the links in paragraph two) to see what they've got "access to."

P.S.: Thanks to Thomas for today's picture!

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Reflections on Getting Started on a Career in Writing

Nearly all week, I've been reading submissions from a group of 74 Quebec writers who have applied to the Quebec Writers' Federation Mentorship Program. The writers who are chosen will be paired up with several professional writers and will get a special privilege: one-on-one coaching.

This is the first time I've been asked to be part of the jury that reads submissions and it has been a humbling experience. First of all, many of the new writers are really talented. They have interesting stories to tell and compelling voices. But the other part of the experience that has been humbling is reading the letters of intention they've been asked to write. Many describe struggling to write in a "vacuum," and not knowing whether their work is good enough, or will ever be good enough. For me, it's a sometimes painful reminder of how I felt for many years in my own life when I was struggling to find my voice and the stories I needed to tell, and then to get published.

So, if you're an aspiring writer reading today's entry, all I can tell you is keep the faith. But most of all, keep writing -- and reading. It's those of us who don't give up (even when we're awfully tempted to!!) who make it. Here's to courage and stick-to-it-ive-ness!!

Did I mention that I return to full-time teaching on Monday morning at 8:15? Expect to read all about it right here!

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The Battle of Dieppe

I know it's 2011, but in my head, it's August 1942. That's because, as part of my work on my latest book project, I've been researching the Battle of Dieppe, which took place on August 19, 1942 -- and in which thousands of Canadian soldiers were injured, killed or taken as prisoners.

In particular, I've been looking at how Canadian newspapers covered the story of Dieppe. What's interesting is that early reports are largely positive. The huge number of deaths and casualties was revealed slowly and the focus was on the so-called "lessons" learned at Dieppe.

As well as looking at old newspapers on microfiche, I have been reading Hugh Brewster's moving novel Prisoner of Dieppe. It's part of Scholastic's I Am Canada series. What I like so much about Brewster's book is that his characters really bring history to life. I got so involved reading about Alistair Morrison that I forgot I was doing research! 

My favourite scenes in Brewster's book have to do with the friendship between Alistair and a young man named Mackie. Before the boys go into battle, Mackie gives Alistair a little mirror to put in his pocket -- and that mirror turns out to be very useful. Read this little excerpt and you'll understand why:  "I reached in and pulled out the metal hand mirror that Mackie had given me. It had been punched inwards and shaped like a tiny fist. Clasped inside its bent edges was a jagged piece of shrapnel that had been headed for my heart."

Can't you just see it -- and feel it?

Here's to historical fiction that really works!

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What In the World Does Writing Have to Do With Running?

One of the books I read over the holidays was Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami is a Japanese novelist and marathoner and he draws many interesting and often surprising comparisons between writing and running. 

Though Murakami concedes that writing requires some talent, he seems to be even more interested in the dual powers of focus and endurance. Here's a quote from his book: "Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor.... It doesn't involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high.... You might not move your body around, but there's grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you.... a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being."

Smart, don't you think? I especially like Murakami's use of a clothing metaphor ("puts on an outfit") to describe the writer's relationship with story. For me, running is a great time to clear my head and sometimes, if I'm really lucky, to get ideas for my stories... but perhaps Murakami is right and all my years of running have helped strengthen my focus and endurance muscles. 

So, have I made you want to go for a run?

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Spring Is In the Air!!

Maybe I'm being a little too optimistic -- considering it's only the second day of January 2011... but look what I saw outside today! Two clotheslines in action!! (One of them is mine -- that's our butter-coloured balcony.) So this means there are at least two crazy households here in Montreal -- hanging out our laundry with a couple of feet of snow on the ground!

This is just a short entry to wish you, dear blog reader, all the best in 2011. And in case you are missing me very much, here are links to two sites where you can see me in person. (One is the Quebec Roots website where visual artist Thomas Kneubuhler posted a spirited multilingual greeting from our trip to Nunavik; the other is a little interview with yours truly that was aired on CTV on December 31. If you want to check out the CTV interview, you need to look for my name on the right side of the CTV Montreal homepage... not sure how much longer it'll be on their website.)

Okay, more news from me later this week. Time to see if our sheets are dry!!

PS: I guess it's Show 'n Tell around here today -- I just posted an image of the cover of Miracleville -- due out this spring. Pretty, isn't it?!!

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I Wish You a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

It's a good thing that you can't hear me singing the title of today's blog entry because I am an awful singer. Even my own husband asks me to stop singing when he hears me!

But I do want to wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a very happy and healthy New Year ahead. What have you been up to over the holidays?

I spent most of my day yesterday on the couch recovering from a cat attack! I know, I know... trouble makes a good story, but I'd rather not have this particular good story to tell! Anyway, I am babysitting a cat and I got a little too close to him, and next thing I know he took a nip at my forehead. My daughter blames my big hair -- she says he probably thought my hair was a strange creature.

I kept myself busy on the couch by reading K.L. Denman's YA book, Me, Myself and Ike, which was recently nominated for the Governor General's Prize. It's a super interesting book and it chronicles a young man's descent into schizophrenia. It's not an easy read, that's for sure, but Denman does a great job of capturing what the narrator (Kit) is going through. K.L. Denman and I share the same wonderful editor -- Sarah Harvey at Orca Books

In the novel, Kit wants to climb a mountain. I was thinking how, in our own ways, we all want to climb mountains (or write books, or raise children... mountains don't necessarily have to be high and have snow on top)... so my wish for today is that you keep climbing to your mountaintop -- wherever it is and whatever it might be! And stay away from (wo)man-eating cats!


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A Special Privilege

My workdays often seem to go quickly, but today was one of those days that felt more like five minutes than six hours! And it was the sort of day that made me feel very privileged. That's because I spent it with students at the Mackay Centre's satellite school. It was my first time doing a writing workshop with youngsters who have disabilities and I have to tell you, they stole my heart... each and every one of them!!

Because I have little experience working with people with disabilities, I didn't know what to expect -- except that my day would probably be special. But how special I had no idea!!

The students, who are taught by Sebastian Piquette, Sue Beauregard and Daniel Weisbord, had all read What World Is Left -- the novel I based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp. The students were really well prepared, thanks to Daniel (who'd taught them the book), but also just thanks to who these young people are -- interested, smart and caring.

I quickly learned that there's a lot of laughter in their classroom. When I shared my tip for getting ideas in the shower (though as we were discussing, some of these students need assistance showering, and so they might need to ask whoever is helping them to give them a little quiet time while they're helping them shower), I said, "What can you lose by trying to get ideas in the shower?" To which a student named Matt replied: "Nothing! You'll just get clean!" (Good point, Matt!)

I want to tell you a little more about the students I met today -- so that, like me, you'll understand that these are not disabled students, they're just regular wonderful students who happen to have disabilities. And whatever challenges they face, these young people have certainly not given up!!

Tan and her brother Neville are both in the class. Neville is a serious writer (I could tell this during the writing exercise by how hard he worked); Tan has a huge heart. She helps decipher what another student, a very bright young man named Ryan (who hopes to make his own movie version of Star Wars some day), is trying to say. Tan also remembered how when she was hospitalized several years ago and she had to be fed through a feeding tube, she managed to help another person -- this happened when another patient's mom was really upset that her daughter required a feeding tube. Tan remembers how a nurse brought the distraught mom to Tan's room to see that the feeding tube was not so bad. "The feeding tube went from my nose to my stomach," Tan said. Tan also remembers the first thing she ate once the feeding tube was removed: "A bag of chips!" (Notice here how DETAILS help bring a story to life.)

Matt (whom I mentioned before) also has a sibling in the class: Michel. Michel told us an amazing story about what happened when he first met Luca Lazy Legs Patuelli -- a world famous break dancer who just happens to be disabled. Michel was in Grade 6 when he met Lazy Legs: "I was so inspired, I literally jumped out of my power chair!" Michel, who is now a serious break dancer himself, says that moment changed his life. I suggested that maybe he should write about the experience, but in keeping with my theory that TROUBLE makes the best stories, I advised him not to focus just on the happy moment, but also to include the struggles and feelings of discouragement that he had along the way, before he met Lazy Legs... and of course, afterwards, too.

It was hard to say good-bye to this class when their school day ended at 2:30. It was also hard to find the right words to tell them how much they touched me today -- with their stories and their openheartedness. Luckily, I thought of what felt like the right thing. And for this, I have to thank Ryan and his fascination with Star Wars. I decided to quote Obi-Wan-Kenobi: "May the force be with you." Thanks, Sebastian, for inviting me to your satellite school today. Thanks to the students for sharing your force with me. Big hug for all of you from Monique

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Magic Day in Kangirsuk

Visual artist Thomas Kneubuhler and I are in Kangirsuk, a village of some 450 people, located on the Payne River, about 12 kilometers from Ungava Bay. We spent our day at Sautjuit School, working with teacher Velta Douglas's secondary students. And it was a magic day.

Here's why: it was quite foggy this morning, but it just so happened to clear up exactly after Thomas had finished his photo workshop and was ready to head outside with the students and their cameras. By the way, I should also tell you that Velta managed to get ten super fancy digital SLR cameras for her students -- she applied for and got a grant to cover the cost of the cameras... anyway, the students didn't just look like professionals, they behaved like professionals, too! Right now, Thomas is on his computer, reviewing the photos the students took today -- and tomorrow he'll give us all his feedback on their shots.

Like the other classes involved in this year's Quebec Roots project, the group here has had to come up with an idea for their chapter in this year's edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. They've decided to focus on the land, and plan to call their chapter, "On the Land/From the Land." My job was to inspire them to do some writing. I explained how I'm hooked on writing and how writing (and reading) have helped me through the toughest moments in my life. I also talked about how writing takes courage. Together, we managed to produce a few group poems. They supplied the details and most of the language; I was the cheerleader at the blackboard -- and one especially cooperative student, Malaiya, was our official scribe, writing down everything and not once getting upset when we crossed things out and added new stuff.

We did a couple of poems about the students' experience on the land. I tried to stress the importance of details -- I explained how readers remember strong details. Jessie came up with a gorgeous unforgettable detail -- about a snowy owl landing on a wooden cross. Aaaahh! Jessie, you brought me with you there, and made me feel like I saw that snowy owl, too. 

Just about all the students made some sort of contribution to the writing. Christopher shared some great stories about a walrus and a polar bear. Susie helped to describe a woman named Sarah who had died in a nearby community, by telling us she came to Kangirsuk "when her family needed her or if there was a funeral." This detail will help readers get to know Sarah, too, and feel how kind she was.

I took notes during Thomas's talk, too. I liked how he told the students, "First I think before I take a picture." Of course, that's great advice when it comes to writing, too. Thomas also compared himself to Joe Juneau, the former NHL player who's been working with students throughout Nunavik. Thomas said, "I'm a photography coach." Which makes me a writing coach. And today, we two coaches had a magic day. Thanks to Velta Douglas for doing such good preparatory work with her students and for training them to be expressive and polite (she uses an ingenious reward system called "Meltas") and to her students for sharing their stories and this beautiful place where they live with us!!

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Hello Again From Salluit!

Ikusik School in Salluit is closed this morning on account of high winds -- they're gusting at about 80 kilometers an hour right now. My flight to Kangirsuk has been cancelled. I'm hoping the students will be able to make it in this afternoon so that I can maximize my time here and do a few more writing workshops. Then, if all goes well, I'll fly out to Kangirsuk first thing tomorrow morning.

Yesterday, I worked with Janie, who teaches Grade Six French. Janie and her students are working on a Christmas story and she asked if I might have some tips for her. "Last year," she said, "the students wrote a story about elves who fart on the lake. This year, I want them to have more ideas!"

I suggested to Janie that she encourage the students to interview their grandparents -- and ask them about obstacles they've faced in their lives and how they overcame them. We also discussed how the real theme of Christmas is new beginnings. Perhaps, Janie's students can come up with a character together (they'll need to do some brainstorming in order to decide basic things about this character -- is it a boy or girl? how old is he or she? what does he or she want most in the world? what obstacles does he or she face? what could be a new beginning for this character?)

I also helped Katherine's Grade Seven English class write a group poem. Just about everyone in the class contributed. I'm going to post what the students came up with. I think it's pretty beautiful! (Oh, you'll need to know that pualuk means mittens in Inuktitut.)

Happy Winter Days in Salluit 

By Katherine's Grade Seven Class

After school

Just snow

The air smells fresh

My hands are warm inside my pualuk

I made them myself in girls' culture class

They keep me warm and I'm proud because I made them.

After school

Just snow

I climb up on a pile of snow

And flip over on my back

A bit of snow gets in under my jacket

And melts on my back

I feel cold, but happy.

One day, I'd like to see the beach in Los Angeles

Or a basketball game in Montreal

Or get a hug from Justin Bieber!

For now, though, I'm playing in Salluit and having a snowball fight.



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Hello from Salluit

I'm writing to you today from Ikuskik School in Salluit, in Nunavik. It's lunch time and I should really be eating lunch... but I couldn't resist slipping into the computer room so that I could send you my report!

Salluit is a beautiful snowy town on the Hudson Bay. I am working with Katherine's classes. I've already worked with a couple of her groups. I asked Katherine's Grades 7 students whether any of them liked to read or write. No one said anything at first, but then I caught a student named Maina looking at one of my books. Ah ha, I thought to myself, here's a reader!! 

A few of Maina's classmates talked about how they go hunting for seal and caribou. I told them I'm a hunter, too, only I hunt for stories. I'm also a spy... wherever I go, I try to observe people and listen to their stories. Sometimes, I tell my students that the air around me feels "thick with stories." That's how it feels here in Salluit. 

Tragically, the day before I arrived, a little boy was killed here in a car accident. In a town this size, everyone is touched by this death. I offered my condolences today to the students I met, and I told them how for me, when life gets really tough, when I feel close to giving up hope... I turn to writing and reading. Perhaps my visit here will inspire some of them to do the same.

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Hello from Orchard School

I am writing to you today from Orchard Elementary School in Lasalle, Quebec. I'm here doing a series of writing workshops. I started my day with the kindergarten classes and am working my way up to the senior students. What I find interesting is that the basics of writing stay the same -- no matter if I am teaching kids in kindergarten or my own students at Marianopolis College.
So, today I've been focusing on what I call the "hunt" for stories and how I ask the question, "What if?" when I begin imagining a story. I'm going to tell you a little about some of my happiest moments today. Here goes: A kindergarten student named Dyrhon gave me a spontaneous hug after my presentation. Now, that doesn't happen much in college!!
Two other kindergarteners -- Naijah and Alyssa -- told me they've both decided to become writers. I told them I only started writing seriously when I was in my mid-thirties. Think how experienced Naijah and Alyssa are going to be when they hit my age!!
Other happy moments: When I was trying to make the point that writing, like anything we want to get good at, takes practise, one of the older students, Kamiyha explained how she plays badminton "a lot." I explained that I write A LOT, too.
I also heard a gross but captivating story from a student named Justin. When Justin's brothers' dad was a kid, his finger got badly cut... it was hanging from a thread of skin. Gross right?... but see how the details bring this story to life? And now here comes my favourite detail in Justin's story: the dad's mom made him eat his breakfast before she took him to the hospital! Now, that's a story I'll never forget!
So, thanks to my friends at Orchard Elementary and to principal Mrs. Liz Rivard for inviting me here today. Madame Wendy, the school librarian, isn't at Orchard on Mondays, but she's one of my favourite librarians! So, here's to hunting for stories and including the details that can help bring our stories to life!!

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QWF Awards Night

My book The Middle of Everywhere, which is set in Nunavik (did I tell you I'm heading back there on Tuesday morning?!) did not win the 2010 QWF Prize for Children's and YA Fiction. The prize went to a delightful book called Rough Magic by Montreal author Caryl Cude Mullin. That is Caryl at the centre of today's pic. I know her book is delightful because I'm reading it. It's a fantasy inspired by Shakespeare's play The Tempest. Also up for the award was Catherine Austen (she's wearing the black and white checkered dress) for her wonderful book Walking Backward. I encourage you to read both these books.

After the awards gala on Tuesday night, several friends came up to me and offered their condolences. But I explained -- and I really meant it -- that I was honoured that The Middle of Everywhere was nominated for this prize and honoured, too, to be in such fine company!

It's normal and probably healthy, too, to feel competitive. But one thing I do believe: there is endless room for talent. I also believe that by supporting talent in others we nurture our own. Well, that's more than enough wisdom from me for one day, isn't it? Time now to get back to my latest manuscript!

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This Afternoon at Beaconsfield High

I'm just back at my desk after today's visit to Beaconsfield High School, where I worked with Miss Cochrane's Grades Seven and Nine classes. I've visited BHS before, and I've come to have a lot of admiration for Miss Cochrane, who really gives her all to her students.

This morning, another local YA writer, my friend Lori Weber. worked with some of the same students. So, in a way, I had an extra challenge: keeping the students interested in the second half of their day (just when they were getting sluggish and when they had already met a writer. I mean, how many writers can people handle in a day?!).

I'll be frank here: A few of the students exhibited body language that was less than ideal -- using each other as human pillows and nudging their neighbours. I have to admit I found that a little frustrating. But the atmosphere changed dramatically when we started discussing my book The Middle of Everywhere. Many of the students had read the book and had really good questions about it. One wanted to know if I'd ever seen a polar bear (no!), and someone else wanted to know if the part about a guy's getting his finger chopped off was true (also no). Another student seemed to know more than I do about polar bears. He said their fur is transparent and the skin underneath the fur gives them their whitish-yellow colour. Very cool. (Too bad I didn't meet this young polar bear expert while I was working on the book.)

Anyway, I must say that the students' questions showed how smart they are, and how carefully they read -- and especially that they think about things. And in my own way, of course, I'm glad my book got them thinking. I should also say there were several young people whose body language was "right on" -- I felt as if I could see their brains working... thinking about how stories work and considering where to go and whom to talk to in order to find exciting, inspiring and perhaps even funny stories. (By the way, the student in today's pic is NOT SLEEPING -- she was doing a writing exercise that involved closing her eyes in order to access an old memory!)

So special thanks go out today to the students at BHS who listened attentively, who asked good questions, who think about things -- and to Miss Cochrane for being so wise and kind.

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Return Visit to James Lyng

Talk about body language! Have a look at today's pic -- that's Cedric, a student at James Lyng High School here in Montreal, who was hiding under his T-shirt during the first part of my visit today. (But I noticed that once I got to talking about writing, and especially about my book What World Is Left, Cedric emerged from under his T-shirt! Besides, he had an excuse -- he told me he was cold.)

Anyway, I'm always telling students how I feel the air is"thick with stories." Well, it certainly is at James Lyng. I worked with three groups of students, all of whom are taught by Mrs. Bourne. One student told me that Mrs. Bourne is "like a second mother to us."

So here's a few bits and pieces from my day: A student named Derrick responded to an exercise I gave about retrieving a memory by writing a short paragraph about coming up empty. I suggested he might turn it into a poem -- I had the strong feeling that Derrick has a poetic soul -- and you know what? He wrote something lovely, and very moving.

I told the students that like working out, writing requires constant practice. Then a student named Amber explained how she plays football with her brothers every single day. I thought that was a great example, and I imagine Amber plays a pretty good game of football! Amber, keep working on the writing, too. Slowly, you need to build your skills and endurance -- just like with football!

Matthew wrote a fine descriptive paragraph set during World War II. Lahteisha understood immediately when I said my stories start with a little bit of something true -- I knew it from her eyes and also because she said, "then you expand on it." Which is exactly what I do: start with something true, then let it expand in my mind by asking myself the question, "What if?"

And Ashley Tibbo, what can I say? Your writing showed me that you are a writer. Not to mention that you have a perfect writing name. I can already imagine it on a book cover!

Have a great weekend all of you. This was a special week for me -- in which I got to meet many special inspiring young people at Beurling and at James Lyng. Get started on the stories that matter most to you!

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Day Three at Beurling Academy & My First Visit du Salon du Livre

Hey, those people in today's pic don't go to Beurling Academy!! Sorry for confusing you, dear blog readers. Those are two interesting people I met last night at Salon du Livre here in Montreal. But I'll tell you about that in the second half of today's blog entry. First, you probably want to know how Day Three at Beurling went.

The answer is: very well. Even those students who were less than focused yesterday were on track today. Usually, when I do school visits, I only spend a day working at a school, so having three days at Beurling really gave me the feeling I miss most about having my own class: a real sense of connection.

This morning, I worked with two Ethics classes, as well as an English and Creative Writing class. For the ethics discussion, I focused on my novel What World Is Left which I hope raises some important ethical questions like: What are we willing to do to stay alive? Is anyone perfectly good or perfectly evil?

And I'm still pondering the issue that Tamara raised on my first day at Beurling: Is it somehow selfish of us to want to hear other people's stories, especially their painful private stories? It's a great question and one that would probably take way more than a book to answer. I do think, though, that people have a need to share their stories (even the painful private ones) and that listening to these stories, with respect and an open heart, is a kind of gift we can give to others. And of course, their stories are a gift to us.

So thanks to all of you at Beurling Academy for making me feel so welcome. Thanks to the students, to Miss Debi and to librarian Helene Bourguigon. You guys are amazing!

Now I want to tell you a little about last night's visit to Salon du Livre. I was invited by the publishing company Courte Echelle, which is bringing out my novel On the Game in French in February. Merveilleux, n'est-ce-pas?! I found out exciting news -- that the French title of the book will be Poupée. And though I didn't know anyone in the room, I resisted my urge to flee (you see -- even naturally outgoing people like me sometimes get shy!!), and met some really fun people. In the pic at the top of today'  blog entry, you, too, can meet illustrator Guillaume Maccabée and translator Amy-Lou Lafontaine. Guillaume is the illustrator of the popular Emo series. Amy-Lou's most recent translation is of the novel Mammouth Académie, tome 4.

And because I'm naturally curious (and always thinking of you, dear blog readers), I asked Guillaume a little about how he works. He told me that before he starts to draw, he takes deep breaths. "It opens a channel in me," he said. He also told me that he thinks, "a word is worth a thousand pictures!" ... Guillaume, if you're reading this, you will be pleased to know that this morning when I worked with the Creative Writing class at Beurling, I had them do some deep breathing before their writing exercise. Hopefully, your trick helped open up their channels, too!

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Day Two: Beurling Academy

Hello again, blog readers. Today, I am back at my desk after an action-packed second day at Beurling Academy in Verdun.

Meet Vicky (that's her in today's pic). Vicky is in Miss Debi's Grade 11 Creative Writing class and she and some of her classmates stayed behind after my session to chat a little more about the world of writing.

But first, I worked with Miss Debi's Grade 10 English class -- a group I also saw yesterday and will meet again tomorrow. It isn't right for teachers (or authors!!) to have favourites, but I have to say these kids are stealing my heart. Even Bradley who was facing away from me AGAIN today -- despite all my encouraging advice to him yesterday about eye contact!! I forgot to tell you how yesterday, Bradley shared a very interesting observation about men's behavior in bathrooms (something I have been unable to research personally on account of my being a woman!) -- Bradley says there is what he calls "a two stall rule,"  meaning that when men pee, they tend to try and leave an open stall between them. That's what I call insider information and books need lots of insider info!!

A student named Ashley in the Creative Writing group struck me as intriguing. I noticed several unusual things about her: her socks were wet (she'd stepped in a puddle on the way to school); her socks did not match (one had rainbow stripes, the other had blue stripes); she has a snakebite piercing under her lip; and she had blue marker markings all over one arm (from a "marker fight" yesterday). When we got to chatting, Ashley explained that those unmatched socks are actually lucky socks -- and that she is -- here comes the most interesting part -- a grappler. (Which is like a wrestler.)

I don't know about you, but I love the word "grappling." I'm a grappler, too, only I don't grapple other people's bodies! I grapple with ideas.

This wouldn't be an honest entry if I told you that everything went super well today at Beurling. There was a small group of students in the Creative Writing class who were, let's say, a little less than focused. I call this kind of behavior "resistant." And you know what it means to me? Not that these young people aren't interested in learning about writing -- but that they must have some seriously interesting and important stories of their own to share. Only they're resistant. So here's my challenge to all of you, today: may you be brave enough to find and tell your stories!!

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Greetings From Beurling Academy

Hey, blog readers! Today, I am writing to you from the library at Beurling Academy in Verdun. I'll be here the next three days doing workshops with the school's Grades 10 and 11 students. So far, if I may say so myself, things are going super well! That may be because some of the students here already know quite a bit about the Holocaust, the subject of my book What World Is Left. They have been studying the Holocaust in their Ethics classes. Last week, Ethics teacher Miss Debi took some of her students to the Montreal Holocaust Centre where they actually had the opportunity to meet and interview survivors.

I was telling my first group this morning how important details are to story telling. Details bring a story alive, but too many details can bog a story down and make your reader lose interest. So it's a question of finding the right balance. By way of example, I pointed out a few details I had observed by looking at my audience. A student named Bradley was the only one in the group who had his back to me. When I got him to turn around, Bradley admitted something interesting: that he dislikes making eye contact. This led us to a little discussion about eye contact and its importance (I told Bradley he is more likely to be stopped at the border if he doesn't make eye contact with the border patrol officer!). Anyway, Bradley happens to have very kind eyes, and when he did look at me, it was great! I also observed a student named Tamara (that is Tamara in today's pic, wearing a white shirt) who was scratching her paper with her pen. In all my years of working with students, I had never noticed this sort of scratching before -- and so I immediately wrote it down in my notes. As I told the students, I am always looking for young people to "people" my stories. So, who knows? Maybe Bradley and Tamara will turn up (names changed, of course!) in an upcoming book!

At recess, Tamara re-appeared and she told me a little about her visit to the Montreal Holocaust Centre last week. Tamara had mixed feelings about interviewing a survivor. She wanted to know more, but felt a little bad about her curiosity.... guilty, I guess. I told Tamara that her response shows remarkable sophistication and sensitivity. Perhaps here, too, as in including details in a story, the trick is to find the right balance. Curiosity is vital, but we also want to tread gently when we ask difficult questions. So special thanks to the students I've met so far for being so open with me. Thanks to Miss Debi, and to librarian Helene Bourguignon (she is also in today's pic) for arranging this week's visit. Oh, and I nearly forgot to tell you two fun coincidences. A student here named Netta had already heard me before -- a couple of years ago when I visited her school in New Carlisle in the Gaspe! (Hope I didn't say too many of the same things, Netta!) And a Beurling math teacher named Mr. Swiderski popped by to say hi, too. He was my student at Marianopolis in 1995!! (I love coincidences.) ... Have a great day wherever you are!

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Two Miss Fréchettes At One School?

How you may ask can there be two -- count them, two! -- Miss Fréchettes at Shawinigan High School? How confusing for the students!! And to make matters even MORE confusing, the two Miss Fréchettes are identical twins!! (That is them in today's pic.)

Thank goodness that yesterday they were wearing their hair in different styles. Otherwise, photographer Monique Dykstra and I, who were at the school helping students work on their chapter in this year's edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live, would have been unable to tell the Miss Fréchettes apart. That is Cloann Fréchette with her hair down, and Marilou Fréchette with her hair piled on top of her head.

So, I was thinking... wouldn't it make a great story to have two identical twin sisters teaching in the same school? Imagine the possibilities for fun -- and trouble (two essential ingredients in a good story!!).

One more thing... before I get back to work on my newest book project... Monique Dykstra was shooting photos at the school yesterday when she turned to me and said, "What I'm trying to do with pictures is not be so afraid. When you're afraid, you don't try something new -- you just want the picture to work. Fear drowns out instinct." Of course, I thought that what she said was so smart that I grabbed my pen and wrote it down. So today, I'm wishing you -- and me, and Monique D, courage to try new things when you (or we) tell stories using words and photographs!!

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The Moniques Go to Shawinigan

Today, photographer Monique Dykstra and I are spending the day at Shawinigan School, where we are working with Miss Fréchette's wonderful Grade Two class. That means I am sitting in a very small chair writing this blog entry (luckily I am a small person!). This morning, Monique D talked about how photography works, and I talked about how I get ideas for my books. Then, somehow, we got to talking about memories. And as if by magic, that became the students' topic for their chapter in this year's Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live.

I think many of us tend to associate memories with older people. But we learned this morning that even students who are eight years old have lots of memories -- happy ones, embarrassing ones, and sad ones. Also, many of the students here have parents who also went to Shawinigan School, and it will be interesting for the kids to interview their parents about these memories.

Now the vote for a topic was close -- the students were also very interested in writing about the animals of Shawinigan. They have seen squirrels, deer and sometimes even moose. Some of their parents trap animals or go hunting. But we have a solution: the students can also write about their memories that have to do with animals, especially animals they may have seen at school or through their classroom window.

Right now, Monique D is with the kids working in a computer room upstairs. Later today, the Moniques head back to Montreal -- full of memories of our fun trip to Quebec City and Shawinigan.

A word of explanation about today's pic. Miss Fréchette has 21 students -- well, there are 20 plus Lili (Lili is the little redhead sitting on her best friend's lap).

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The Moniques Climb Everest

Okay, so we aren’t really climbing Mount Everest — I was just trying to come up with a catchy title for today’s blog entry. Photographer Monique Dykstra (that's her in today's pic, getting ready to photograph the class) and I are at Everest Elementary School in Quebec City, working with Shelley Longney’s Grades 5 & 6 students. They are certainly a bright and lively group, with lots to say and lots of fun ideas. We had several votes until the students agreed on a topic for their chapter in this year’s edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. Now you must be eager to know what topic won the vote, right?

I’m trying to build suspense….

Okay, here goes!!

Once every six school days, all the students at Everest walk around the baseball field across the street from the school. The administration keeps count of the number of kilometers covered — and the goal is for the school to “reach” the pinnacle of Mount Everest (or at least the first base camp).  It’s a way to encourage fitness and friendships. And that’s what the students want to write about, and this project is all about giving students a voice so they can express their thoughts and feelings about what community means to them.

I took some notes during Monique D’s photo workshop this morning. (I’m always learning new things when I hang out with photographers.) She told the students that curves (for instance a curving road) can contribute to a nice composition in a photo, and that cloudy days are usually better for taking photos than sunny days (too much glare).

Earlier this morning, I talked a little about how I get ideas for my books. I was telling the students here that a couple of years ago, I got a book idea from a class I was working with on that year’s Quebec Roots project. (The kids at that school were famous for misbehaving on a Montreal bus called the 121 Express… and I ended up writing a book called 121 Express). A student here named Jimmy called out, “For real?” I thought that was great… because it’s a big question… all of us who make things (that means writers and photographers and cooks and gardeners)… are inspired by reality, but then we use our imaginations. And who knows where our imaginations will take us?

Right now, I’m looking out the window of Miss Longney’s class — I can see the baseball field… and I’m imagining what it would look like with all the Everest students out on their walk. If they succeed with their chapter (and I’m sure they will), they’ll take us readers out on a walk around the world, too!!

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Still Flying From My Trip to Inukjuak

I'm back at my desk in Montreal, but in my head I'm still FLYING from my trip to Inukjuak, Nunavik this week. I met so many interesting young people and heard so many AMAZING stories. The young people I met hunt for caribou and seal; I told them I HUNT FOR STORIES. And that's why I'm flying. I feel full of stories!

During my visit, I interviewed two survivors of the High Arctic Relocation. Both Alacie, who's now 83, and Markoosie, who's 69, were sent by boat from Inukjuak  to Resolute Bay in the High Arctic. They were told that there were many animals to hunt at Resolute, but that wasn't the case. Instead, they suffered terrible hardships. And many of the survivors of this relocation have not spoken much about their experience. I felt very very privileged to hear their stories. I had a lot of help, of course. A very special young lady who speaks perfect Inuktitut even though she is only 10, and neither of her parents are Inuit, helped me translate Alacie's words. So I send a hug to Sarah A for her assistance. And a wonderful young man named Paulusie organized my meeting with Markoosie. Monkey hats off to you, Paulusie! (I say monkey hats because Paulusie wears a very cool monkey hat!)

Some students from Inukjuak have already written to me. (One of them is in today's pic. The teacher to my left is Crystal, whom I mentioned in my last blog entry.) I am so pleased to hear from you, and to learn that perhaps a little of what I told you about writing stories will stay with you. You guys have a big responsibility: to listen to the stories in the world around you and to share them with the rest of us.

And remember, for those of you who come to college in Montreal -- spaghetti dinner at my house!!

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Checking in From Inukjuak

Hello world! I'm writing to you today from Innalik School in Inukjuak, a town on the Hudson Bay in Nunavik. Right now, I'm in Room 220 using a teacher named Crystal's computer. At lunch, I worked on a computer in the staff room and from the window, I looked out on the bay. There's no snow yet on the ground here, but the air has that crisp feeling it gets before the snow comes.

Let me tell you about some of my happiest moments so far.... When I first arrived at the school yesterday, I worked with a group of Grade Three students who happened to be in the school library. I showed them my journal and explained how I write three pages in it every single day. I asked the students (they speak mostly Inuktitut, so they had a translator with them) if they wanted to be writers one day, too. No one answered, but one student named Linette suddenly straightened her shoulders, so I knew that meant yes! I told her she needs to write every day, too, and suggested she might use a smaller notebook than the one I use (that way she could fill the pages more quickly!)

After my morning session today with Inga's class, a student named Samwillie stayed to chat. So did a student named Victor, who'd actually written a moving piece for me about dealing with a troublesome situation. (I told the students that TROUBLE is an essential ingredient in stories, but recommended they try to stay out of trouble, if at all possible!!). Then, just now, in Crystal's class, I worked with several students who seem to really enjoy writing. Bailey expressed her feelings on the page, saying: "I write every day. Writing sometimes hurts, but sometimes it's worth it." I thought that that showed Bailey has a lot of courage, another thing we writers seem to need in order to tell our stories. And another very special person I met is Jennifer, who LOVES READING. And writing!! (Way to go, Jennifer!) Crystal (Jennifer's teacher) just told me that Jennifer is always asking for new books to read. In our workshop today, Jennifer started work on a story told from her grandmother's point of view. I told the students that it can be very satisfying to tell the story of someone we love a lot -- and someone who's survived hardship. 

So that's my news for today. I'm off now to do some exploring around town. I hear there's a library that's not part of the school. My plan is to find it and bring over one of my books. I'll be back  "South" (meaning Montreal!) on Friday night... so I should have lots of news for you by then!

P.S.: A little explanation about today's pic: It's the first photo I shot in Inukjuak, when I met those Grade 3 students. The young man at the left is Simeone, who translated what I had to say into Inuktitut; the woman at the top right is Nunga, the school librarian.

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Hello from St. Willibrord School

Hello, hello, blog readers. I'm writing to you today from St. Willibrord School in Chateauguay. I'm here today with photographer Joel Silverstein and we're working with students in Miss Small's Writing Club. These students (all girls in grades 4 to 6) are amazing. THEY LOVE TO WRITE!! And right now, it's lunch, and they're out snapping pics.

This morning, I did a little writing workshop and then Joel took over. He led an interesting discussion about the links between writing and photography. As Joel said, "Both are trying to get somebody somewhere." He advised students to take lots and lots of photos: "Take pics of what interests you. Take pics of what you don't understand. Take pics of what you do understand. Take pics of everything!" He also told the students they have some advantages over older photographers: "You see truths some of us may have dismissed." This thinking, Joel told me later, was inspired by Ernst Haas, one of the founders of the famous Magnum Photos.

Soon, we're going to try and get the students to FOCUS (another link between writing and photography!) on the topic they'll explore through words and pictures in their chapter of this year's Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. But so far, I'd say we're off to a fun and fruitful start!!

... me again, writing from home now. Just to report that our group is coming quite close to FOCUSING on a topic. And because I know you're eager to know what it is, here's how it looks, so far -- the girls want to explore how St. Willibrord brings together students from two communities: those who live in Chateauguay and those who are part of the Mohawk community in Kahnawake. Joel and I agree that we can't wait to see the stories this group comes up with using both words and photographs! Great work today, young women members of the St. Willibrord Writing Club -- and three cheers for your super smart and sensitive teacher Miss Small!

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Bumper Crop of New Kids' Books from Montreal Authors

Last night was a Fall Harvest get-together for Yes Oui CANSCAIP! -- a Montreal-based organization of writers, illustrators and performers for kids. Five local authors and two local illustrators did a sort of "show and tell" about their latest books. And of course, I was in the audience, taking notes for you, dear blog readers.

Jennifer Lloyd, author of the picture book Ella's Umbrellas, teaches kindergarten on the West Island. She said she was inspired to write her Ella book when, after her grandmother's death, she was cleaning out a closet at her grandmother's home and discovered it was full of umbrellas. She wondered what one person could possibly want with so many umbrellas.

Alan Silberberg spoke about his new novel Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze. He told us that the book is a kind of fictionalized account of what life was like for him as a young boy following his mother's death.

And picture book author Nancy Gow (her first book is called Ten Big Toes and a Prince's Nose) says the idea for her book came to her when she was taking a nap. As those of you who've been in my classes can imagine, I loved when Nancy said that since I'm a great believer in the hypnagogic state (that's the period between sleep and waking)... like Nancy, I've found it a great time for coming up with ideas.

Thanks, as always, to Carol-Ann Hoyte for organizing yesterday's soirée.

Okay then, I've got no time for naps today. I'm off to McGill to do a little research for my latest book project. Have a good day wherever you are! Did I mention I'm heading up to Inukjuak next week?! It's a town in Nunavik, Quebec -- and I'm getting excited about this next northern adventure!

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Whirlwind Day in Ottawa

Hello, hello blog readers! I'm just back from a whirlwind day in Ottawa. This morning, I did a talk for Grades 5 and 6 students at Severn Public School. Those kids were dynamite! When I advised students to learn their grandparents' secrets, Alexandria told me she knows everything about her grandmother -- except her age. (I thought that was pretty funny!) A student named John demonstrated that he really thinks like a writer. I told the students how in my book Junkyard Dog, the owner of a guard dog decides to get rid of his dog in a cruel way. Without telling you too much (I don't want to spoil the book for you!), the owner arranges things so that another person will be responsible for the dog's sad end. John said: "Imagine how that person would feel!" EXACTLY THE KIND OF QUESTION A WRITER NEEDS TO ASK!! (That's because writing requires us to get into other people's heads!)

Both my talks today were organized by Jessica Roy of the Ottawa Public Library. Thanks, Jessica, for the invite (and the company). Thanks also to Severn P.S. teacher Jody Fillion who decided her students needed to meet me!!

After lunch, I headed to the Ottawa Public Library's Beaverbrook branch. There, I was welcomed by librarian Patricia Skarzynski. And soon, I was working with a very lively group -- Miss Riddell's Grade 12 English class at Earl of March High School (conveniently located across from the library!). Plus there were two younger students in the group (Elizabeth and Simi), both of whom are being home-schooled, and were there with their mums, which I thought was really fun (being a fan of mums and a mum  myself!).

In today's pic, you see me with (from left to right) Stef, Ben, and next to me, Elizabeth. I had an hour with my second group and though I moved with my usual speed, I found they were able to keep up and follow my sometimes zany thoughts. Though I did forget to tell them how I get some of my best writing ideas in the SHOWER. (Ben promised he'd tell that to the rest of the class when he sees them next. Don't forget, Ben!)

After that presentation, there was time for an informal chat (over Timbits). A student named Reegan told me that her friend Christine "is good at writing, but she doesn't think so." I told Christine that that sounds like a description of a real writer, too. I think it's helpful NOT to think we're the best writers ever... that humility brings us back to the page every day so that we can continue to practice our craft and hopefully continue to improve and get closer to achieving our goal -- transforming our thoughts and feelings about what matters most into words!

So, here's to all my new friends in Ottawa. Happy reading and writing to all of you. And remember, stay out of trouble -- but if trouble has come your way, well then, USE IT IN A STORY. Thanks for a great day!!

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Visit to Wonderland -- Akiva School in Montreal

You may know that my favourite book of all time is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (it was the subject of my Master's thesis at university)... that helps explain why I had such a fun morning today -- I got to talk about Alice with a group of wonderful Grade 5 & 6 students at Akiva School in Westmount, Quebec. The entire school is reading Alice and they've decorated their building with Alice pictures and posters and paraphernalia. In today's pic, I'm with Jennifer Fraenkel, the school's director of academics, who coordinated the project -- with a great deal of assistance, of course, from the teachers, the administration and the students. Check out Jennifer's mad hatter's hat and the tea party exhibit!

For me, the best part was working with the students. They were so smart and well prepared! I told them they were able to answer some questions that my own CEGEP-aged students would have had trouble with! Such as: Where was Lewis Carroll born? (A student named Rebecca knew the answer to this one: Cheshire, England, which helps explain the appearance of the Cheshire Cat in Carroll's book) and What was Lewis Carroll's real name? (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson -- a student named Shai got the middle name, and a student named Michael knew the rest). Then when I was reciting the poem "Jabberwocky," a student named Jon helped me out when I lost my place. Thanks for that, Jon!

I must say I had a good chuckle when a student named Naomi asked if I had written the Alice books. (No, but do I ever wish I had!!) Emma wanted to know if I was Carroll's daughter. (Nope to that one, too!)

I only had about an hour with the students... and truth is, when it comes to talking about Alice, I could go on forever. But here's what I asked the students to remember: that the book's theme of growth is also an important theme in our lives. No matter our age, we continue to grow -- inside and out. I also told them to keep reading, that reading brings solace when we need it (not to mention new information and experiences) and that Wonderland cannot be found on a map -- that's because I think Wonderland's in all of us, available all the time through our imaginations and that no matter our age, we need to exercise our imaginations as much and as often as possible. So make sure you get to Wonderland soon. Have fun learning and growing!

Special thanks to Tina Roth for bringing me to Akiva; to Jennifer, for getting things organized; and to librarian Janice Camlot for letting us use the library. Akiva students, you sure are smart and energetic! Maybe I'll get to teach some of you at Marianopolis in a few years. Hey, you'd be wiz-es in my Alice class!


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More Adventures Coming Soon!

I have the great good fortune to be participating again this year in Quebec Roots, an educational program sponsored by the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation. As part of the project, teams of writers and photographers will visit a total of 10 schools in the province in order to help students produce a chapter in this year's Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live.

Today was the first of two orientation sessions and I met some of the teachers I'll be working with. Photographer Monique Dykstra and I will be traveling to Quebec City and Shawinigan to work at Everest Elementary School and Shawinigan High. Closer to home, photographer Joel Silverstein and I will work with students at St. Willibrord Elementary in Chateauguay. My biggest (and furthest) trip will be with photographer Thomas Kneubuhler when we go to Sautjuit Schoool in Kangirsuk, Nunavik.

One of the other writers working on the project this year is Winnipeg-born poet Gillian Sze. Last year, Gillian's poetry collection, Fish Bones, was a finalist for the Quebec Writers' Federation First Book Prize. Today, I had a chance to chat with Gillian. She was telling me about her work with at-risk teens, and how important it is for the young writers she works with to feel they can trust her. I really loved how Gillian expressed her thoughts, telling me: "Walls don't write." (You can tell from that line that Gillian is a poet, can't you?) Anyway, that's what I'm thinking about this afternoon... how writing takes a certain openness. If your feelings get too walled up inside, you've got to find a way to take down those walls. For me, it's always been writing.

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Nice News Sometimes Comes Just When You Need It...

Have you ever noticed that nice news sometimes comes just when you need it?

It's been a challenging week. My mum (wonderful woman whom some of you have had the good fortune of meeting -- she's the subject of my novel What World Is Left and has occasionally come to do talks with me) has been pretty sick. She was hospitalized earlier this week, but thank goodness, she was released yesterday... so things were already looking up. (Note to young readers here: APPRECIATE your mum and dad, if you are lucky enough to have them. Sure they sometimes drive us crazy, but no matter what, we love them, right?!)

Anyway... on to the other nice news. I just happened to be reading the Montreal Gazette this morning and guess what I found out? My most recent novel The Middle of Everywhere has been nominated for the 2010 Quebec Writers' Federation Prize for Children's and Young Adult Literature.

Last year, when What World Is Left was nominated for the prize, I knew in advance... so when I was reading the article, I was already half-grumpy, thinking for sure I  hadn't made the shortlist and anticipating a little grumpiness this morning. But then I scanned the story and my eyes landed on my name. So, all this to say, sometimes nice news comes at just the right time in just the right way. Hope there's nice news coming your way, too. Life sure is a mix of things, isn't it?


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World Watches Dramatic Rescue Story

You probably know that at this very moment, the world is in the middle of a dramatic rescue -- 33 Chilean miners who have been trapped in the San José Mine for 69 days -- are being lifted up to the ground one at a time in a tiny capsule. Though I haven't been watching the rescue on TV (too busy reading and writing!!), I have been following the STORY closely in the newspaper and on-line. This morning, when I read an account of the rescue in the Montreal Gazette, I wept.

Which got me thinking about what makes a great story (one of my favourite things to think about). If you've met me, you know I'm always saying how stories need TROUBLE and these miners certainly had their share of trouble. But their story is also about tremendous courage and about the bonds that can develop between us. Apparently one of the miners had a great sense of humour; another one proposed, from underground, to his girlfriend; another looked after his fellow miners' medical needs.

And, not surprisingly, there's already talk of a book. When they were first trapped, the miners kept a kind of diary. (I really love that part of the story, too.) Another interesting issue that's getting a lot of media attention is how the miners will fare when they return to real life. They'll be famous and rich, but it's likely they will also face major adjustment difficulties.

I don't know about you, but I AM HOOKED ON STORIES. And you know what else? STORIES ARE EVERYWHERE!!!

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Visitor to My Own School!

This afternoon, I visited my friend Sabine Walser's English 103 class at Marianopolis College here in Montreal. Ms. Walser invited me in to talk to students about writing book reviews. I told them everything I know about the book review business -- how book reviewers need to read every word of a book, how they should take careful notes and keep track of their responses, how they should express a forceful opinion early on in their review and support their major points with quotes from the book. Anyway, the students had many good questions -- and best of all for me, they got me back in the mood to be a teacher!! (I'll be back at Marianopolis full-time in January.)

On another note, I wanted to talk a little today about coincidences. You may remember that I wrote about a student named Mary, who lived in Akulivik, Nunavik, and who died unexpectedly early this summer. Mary was a star student involved in the Quebec Roots program -- which is how I got to meet her. I wrote a note to Mary's mum in Nunavik, expressing my condolences. Last week, I was visiting a friend at the Montreal General Hospital and I saw two Inuit women. I said hello to them in Inuktitut. (My Inuktitut isn't very good.) Something about one of the women's faces made me keep talking to her. She told me she was from Akulivik; I said I knew Mary -- and guess what? IT WAS MARY'S MUM!!! Guess what else? She's coming here for supper tonight. I think some coincidences are more than just coincidences -- and this was one.


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Happy Day at Mother Teresa Middle School

It's been a while since I've been in a classroom -- and now I realize how much I've missed it!

I had the pleasure of spending most of my day with students at Mother Teresa Middle School in Laval, Quebec. First, I worked with teacher Monic Farrell's Music class. I must say they were a lively bunch (you'll see some of them in today's pic) and they helped get me energized for the rest of the day. Only two of the students said they had an interest in becoming writers, but hopefully, I convinced a few others in the group to consider the writing life. A student named Manny wanted to know how I handle writer's block. I told him that mercifully, it doesn't happen to me very much, but if I do feel blocked, I JUST KEEP WRITING. Even if it is only to say, "gee this is tough. I'm getting discouraged." In other words, I'd write through the block. We talked a little about determination and a student named Dylan gave me a look that told me he knows all about determination. Later, Dylan told me his dream is to become a chef. I told him that'd make great stories -- so maybe he can be a chef who writes on the side.

I spent the rest of the day with Miss Farrell's accelerated learners. I don't think I've ever worked with such a keen group of young writers. Several came in at lunch to share their work with me and to get some feedback. Angel is working on a werewolf story; Alexis is more interested in the place where fiction and non-fiction meet. I told both of them their work looks promising, full of energy and fun, but that they both need to really get to know their main characters. In case you're reading this entry, Angel and Alexis, a good exercise to learn more about your main character is to write down 50 questions (whatever comes to mind -- favourite food, religion, kind of house he or she lives in...) and then work out the answers. We writers need to know all we can about our characters. 

Miss Farrell is doing some super work with her students. They are keeping writers' notebooks, critiquing each other's work, and rewriting. Way to go, Miss Farrell and your students! Thanks for inviting me to Mother Teresa today. Special thanks, too, to principal Mrs. Villalta who attended part of my workshop; to Joan Wasserman, the super English consultant for the Sir Wilfred Laurier School Board; and to Mr. Bilodeau, who was videotaping the visit.

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Quick Trip to Missouri

You must be wondering how I managed to get to Missouri this morning and be back in time for lunch in Montreal! That's because I did a Skype visit with Emily Edger's class at Lewis and Clark Middle School in Jefferson City, Missouri.

I must say the students were super well-prepared! They had loads of good questions for me. Kelly wanted to know if I shared my writing while it was in process. (My answer was yes, but I am very careful about whom I show it to. My first readers have to be kind and smart and honest. Also, I rely heavily on my editor's input during the process.) Morgan wanted to know if I ever get distracted. I answered by holding up my cup of tea (that was my third cup this morning), but I explained that during my frequent tea-making and tea-drinking breaks, I am still thinking about my manuscript.

It was a short Skype session and frankly, I'm sorry it's over so soon. (I think I'm missing having a class of my own!!) In case any of you from L&C Middle School are reading today's entry, I want to know whether you are big fans of the explorers Lewis and Clark. I bet there are many great stories about the famous pair. Do you guys know any of those stories? Thanks to all of you for the fun morning -- and to Miss Edger for making it happen and preparing you so well!

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The Trick to Writing Historical Fiction

Just so you know, dear blog reader, I am ALWAYS thinking of you. Even during business meetings. Yesterday, I was having a business meeting with Sarah Harvey, my editor at Orca Books. Sarah always says many smart things, but when she said this one thing about the trick to writing historical fiction, I thought to myself WRITE THAT DOWN SO I CAN USE IT ON THE BLOG!!

Here's what Sarah said: "The trick with historical fiction is to make the characters live in both these worlds." You're going to need a little context now. The two worlds Sarah meant are the historical world the author is trying to capture in her (or his) story, and the world contemporary teens live in today. 

I thought that line was simple, but oh-so-smart. And because I'm hard at work on another historical YA fiction, that's exactly my challenge: getting my characters to live in two worlds.

Hope things in your world are going okay today.

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"Your Heart Can Only Be Broken Open"

Why, good morning, blog readers! I heard this wonderful line yesterday on CBC radio: "Your heart can only be broken open." It's something that poet-musician Kinnie Star's mum once told her. For me, it means that something huge and wonderful can come from a broken heart.

Kinnie is the author of a collection called How I Learned to Run. During the CBC interview, she talked a little about what writing means to her. She said, "All we're going to have eventually is our stories." That line really resonated with me, too, because though I do like material things, I like stories even more! And I know how important it is to preserve and share them.

I'm back in Montreal and it feels good to be here at my desk. I've written two food stories based on our trip to France and Spain, and I'll let you know when they come out in our paper.

In the mean time, if you've got an achy heart -- and believe me, I've had one (many times!!) -- perhaps you'll take a little comfort in knowing that aches and breaks can lead to a new open-ness. And you know what else? Writers need open hearts in order to imagine what their characters are going through. So, in the end, your own aches and breaks may not only open your heart, but make you a better writer, too!

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Musea Guggenheim Bilbao

Hello again, dear blog readers! Today, I'm writing to you from Toulouse, France's "pink city." We drove here yesterday from Bilbao, Spain, where we visited the Musea Guggenheim Bilbao. The titanium-covered museum was designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. We did an audio-tour of the museum and thinking ahead to this blog entry, I took some notes.

In an interview, Gehry said that for him, designing a building is "like feeling your way in the dark." I LOVE THAT LINE because that's what writing fiction feels like to me, too. I also enjoyed learning that in some ways, Gehry returns to his childhood when he comes up with his ideas. When he was a child growing up in Toronto, he spent a lot of time with his grandmother, who encouraged him to make little buildings out of cardboard and other materials. Gehry's grandmother used to buy fresh carp at the market and kept the carp in her bathtub before cooking it up for dinner. Gehry says fish continue to inspire him: "The fish shape got me into moving freely." The titanium exterior of the Musea Guggenheim Bilbao really does look like fish scales. When I'm back at my own computer in Montreal, I promise to post a picture.

In the mean time, I have a question for you: which of your own childhood memories can you tap into and use in a creative way?

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Trouble Makes a Good Story

I'm always telling my students that trouble makes for a good story. A story that has no trouble in it is ... well ... boring.

Of course, the irony is that we don't want trouble to happen to US (only to the characters in our stories)!! But, alas, there's no avoiding trouble, is there?

We had some trouble this week in Barcelona. Our rental car was broken into. Two of the car windows were smashed and because we had one suitcase stashed in the trunk, the thieves got that, too. We lost our warm clothes and I lost my souvenirs! We had to file a police report and get a new rental car... but we're both fine and of course, we've got STORIES to tell about our experience. Today, we leave Barcelona (a gorgeous city, despite the banditos) and head for San Sebastian. Adios for now, amigos!

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