monique polak

Monique Polak's Books

Back in Dumas, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Reportage from the Salon du Livre

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

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

Okay, let me get to SOME STORIES.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back at Westwood Junior High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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









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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Recent Comments
Guest — Georgia
Hi Monique! I was one of the students you came to visit at Westwood! I thought you were an amazing person and visitor alike, and ... Read More
Tuesday, 07 November 2017 20:08
Guest — Monique Polak
Georgia! Thanks for posting a comment. I noticed (from your excellent body language) that you were having fun! That gives a presen... Read More
Tuesday, 07 November 2017 20:18
Guest — Norah and Katia
Hey Monique!It's Norah from Mrs. Roy's class (you commented on my body language!) and Katia from Mr. O'Rourke's class. We had a fa... Read More
Tuesday, 07 November 2017 20:23
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