monique polak

Monique Polak's Books


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2310 Hits

St. Thomas, Marianopolis and the Power of Stories

Hello hello dear blog readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2523 Hits

Another New Beginning!

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2298 Hits

Happy Morning in the Library at St. Thomas High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1191 Hits

A Little Magic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2422 Hits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  2711 Hits

"Knowing When to Walk Away"

Happy 2012, dear blog readers!

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

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

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

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

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

  2171 Hits

Great Way to Start A Day: At Kuper Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  4614 Hits

Lots of Freds and One Dear Geraldine!

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

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

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

Now, I need to explain about all the Freds!

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

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

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

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


  2800 Hits

Meet Philippe Béha!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2496 Hits

The Moniques Are Back From the Gaspé!

The Moniques?

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2062 Hits

Starting to Feel Like I Belong at Forest Hill Senior!

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

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

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

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

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

  3086 Hits

New Friends at Forest Hill Senior Elementary School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2836 Hits

Super Great Day at FACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1220 Hits

Another Great Boxing Book!

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

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

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

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

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

  3259 Hits

En mots et en images/Words and Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2020 Hits

Loved Yellow Mini

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


  2599 Hits

"You need an obsession..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  2365 Hits

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

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

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

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

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

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


  2399 Hits

An Afternoon at The Study

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

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

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

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

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

  2338 Hits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2797 Hits

Fan Letter to Rina Singh

Good morning Rina Singh,

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

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

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

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

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

Love from Mo

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

  2494 Hits


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

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

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

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

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


  2344 Hits

Play Day!

Play day? But I was working!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1371 Hits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2410 Hits

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!!

  2552 Hits

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!

  2701 Hits

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!

  3288 Hits

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

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

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

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

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

  2405 Hits

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!!



  2346 Hits

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!

  1229 Hits

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.



  2225 Hits

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.

  2230 Hits

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!!

  2327 Hits

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!

  2274 Hits

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!

  2264 Hits

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?!!

  2521 Hits

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!

  3128 Hits

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!

  2823 Hits

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."


  2582 Hits

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?

  2510 Hits

"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!

  2941 Hits

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)!

  2907 Hits

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!!)!!

  2602 Hits

"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.


  2604 Hits

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.


  2314 Hits

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!

  2711 Hits


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!!

  2667 Hits

Jambo from Mount Kenya

Jambo means hello in Swahili!

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

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

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

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

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

  2918 Hits

Webinar & Off On Safari!!

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

That's me, today.

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

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

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

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


  2691 Hits

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!

  3028 Hits

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!!

  2890 Hits

"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!



  3103 Hits

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!


  2675 Hits

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?!!)

  2569 Hits

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.

  3198 Hits

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!

  2959 Hits

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."


  2728 Hits

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!

  3128 Hits

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!!!!!!!

  1640 Hits

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!





  2609 Hits

"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!!!!

  2910 Hits

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!!


  2925 Hits

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.

  2705 Hits

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.


  3163 Hits

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!



  3172 Hits

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!

  2701 Hits

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!!!

  10665 Hits

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!

  2854 Hits

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

  3188 Hits

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!!!!

  3568 Hits

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"!

  3790 Hits

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!

  2893 Hits

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!!

  2814 Hits

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!!

  3515 Hits

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.

  2572 Hits

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!!).

  3083 Hits

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!



  1431 Hits

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!

  3658 Hits

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.

  2957 Hits

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.

  3613 Hits

"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!



  2887 Hits

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!

  3170 Hits

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!!

  4327 Hits

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!!

  4717 Hits

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!!

  3003 Hits

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!!

  3483 Hits

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!

  2944 Hits

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!!

  2749 Hits

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!

  2929 Hits

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!

  2518 Hits

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!

  3307 Hits

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?

  2477 Hits

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?!!

  2896 Hits

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!


  2461 Hits

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

  3097 Hits

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!!

  2759 Hits

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.



  2376 Hits

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.

  2947 Hits

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!!

  2694 Hits