monique polak

Monique Polak's Books

Putting Down Roots: Blue Met Project Reaches Out to New Montrealers

A busy woman like me should NOT be taking on new projects. But there have been a few over the last few weeks I could not resist. Like the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation's My Roots. Last Saturday and again today, poet Marie Clark, photographer Pierre Charbonneau and I joined forces to work with a group of newly-arrived Montrealers. Our "students" will be contributing a chapter to a book that will be published by Blue Metropolis.

We've been doing our workshops at the St. James United Church, which also happens to be home to a remarkable organization, Montreal City Mission, whose goal it is to support refugees. (Special shout-out here to MCM community organizer Anwar Alhjooj for finding us such wonderful participants.)

Marie did haiku with the French-speaking participants. I worked on creative non-fiction pieces with those who preferred to work in English. I shared a few of my usual tips, but mostly I just let the people in my group write -- and they did amazing work (I'm going to share some excerpts soon). I did try two writing prompts. You know the expression "hello and good-bye"? Well I changed it up to "good-bye and hello" since all of my writers had to say good-bye to their homelands before they said hello to Montreal.

I had participants of all ages -- which also made the experience extra-special. In today's pic, you can see Aishea and her baby. Another person I want you to meet is Judy Alzubi (she's in the pic too). A Grade Nine student at Westmount High School, Judy, who is 14, turned out to be a natural translator. Judy came to Montreal from Jordan last February. She listened carefully, respectfully, and with incredible sensitivity as some of the paticipants, including Aishea, shared their stories in Arabic. Judy, you have a rare talent, one that I think is unusual in someone your age. USE IT! Also, I was a little surprised when you told me, "I have no stories." Of course you do! You're just too close to your own life to see the stories.

Okay, as promised, I'm going to share a few short excerpts from the work my group produced.

Jasim, who comes from Syria, wrote about what it felt like for him when his son was imprisoned and tortured. This is how he ended his poem: "Now, when I hold my son in my arms,/ That’s the only time I can forget."

Juan, who is from Colombia, wrote about the nightmares he still occasionally suffers from: "before I open my eyes, I reach for the other side of the bed. There, I feel the beautiful skin of my wife; that delights all my senses. My wife, my daughter, and this beautiful country that has welcomed me, all make me feel at home. I came here to start again."

Aishea wrote about the joy of having her daughter: "When she smiles, she changes my world to happiness. Although I am sad that I have not seen my other children for three years now, I hope my baby’s father will soon be beside us so he can see our daughter smile. For now, I am living here in Canada alone with my baby. It is the first time I have had to be independent. I didn’t know that I could be so strong."

I hope the writers I worked with learned a little bit from me. I know that I feel changed by having been in their company. I thank you all for  sharing your stories and working so hard on your writing. I am certain the readers of your book will feel just as moved and inspired as I do today. Shukraan! Shukraan, which means thank-you, also to Montreal City Mission, to my friends at Blue Met, especially project coordinator Andréa Perry.

 

 

 

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The Moniques are Back!

The Moniques are back in action! This morning, I was teamed up again with my pal, photographer and fellow Monique – Monique Dykstra. We’re working together on this year’s edition of an exciting Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Quebec Roots: Strengthening Communities, the Place I Want to Be.

We were at Lasalle Community Comprehensive High School to work with Mr. Coderre’s Phoenix class. These are Grade 11 students in an alternative program. As a student explained to us, “We don’t run by the bell.” Monique and I also observed that the students enter the school through the back door. (We figured this out when a student named Miguel turned up late – and everyone knew it was him because of his distinctive triple knock!)

It usually requires considerable discussion and debate before a group settles on a topic. But the topic came easily to the Phoenix students. They’re going to write about the subject of ALTERNATIVES. I love this topic. What do you think?

When I told the students to pay attention to older people’s stories, I said that perhaps some of the students find old people boring. A student named Himat shook his head. “My grandparents taught me everything,” he explained. Himat’s grandmother is dead, but his grandfather is alive and he and Himat are close. So I asked Himat whether he knows of any major “alternatives” (such as moments of major decisions) in his grandfather’s life. Here’s what Himat told me: “My grandfather took an alternative road. His family job was farming. But he and another one of his brothers went to the army. My grandfather was in the army for 23 years.” Himat, I think you need to do some more RESEARCH, find out what it felt like for your grandfather to make that choice and how it affected the rest of his life – for good as well as bad.

I started the day with a mini writing workshop. We always save Monique Dykstra’s “lesson” for last since, I hate to admit this, but the kids always seem to find it MORE FUN.

But I did manage to do a little extra writing work with a student named Nathaniel. He wrote about a decision he regretted – not visiting his grandmother (he called her mami) on the day she died. Nathaniel wrote a beautiful, moving piece, and I asked his permission to share two lines here. In the poem Nathaniel wrote, he described how his dad found mami’s body a week after her death: “She was lying on the bathroom floor/ Her belly as bloated as if she was six months pregnant.”

Those aren’t easy lines to read. And they couldn’t have been easy lines for Nathaniel to write. Yet, those words will remain with me, as I think they will with you, dear blog reader. That’s the power of words, Nathaniel. May you, as you told me you hoped to do, continue to make your mami proud with your creativity and goodness.

Watch this blog for more news about how the students are using words and photographs to explore the topic of alternatives. Thanks to the Phoneix kids for being wonderful, to Mr. Coderre for being wonderful too, and to Blue Met for making this project possible.

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YOUR STORY: Happy Day in Ottawa with MASC

My day in Ottawa started with a skate on the Rideau Canal. Okay, I took two little spills (it's been a few years since my last skate and the surface was a wee bit bumpy), but I got right up, and ... watched the sun rise. I didn't think my day could get much better than that. But it did.

That's because I was presenting at YOUR STORY: Write it, Draw it, Tell It. A MASC Teen Authors & Illustrators Festival program, it took place at Cionfederation Education Centre. I got to rub shoulders with some terrific writers and illustrators -- Alan Cumyn, Max Turner, Melanie Florence, Caroline Pignat, and Brian McLachlan -- but even better, I spent most of my day working with 14 amazing young writers (that's them with me in the pic).

Usually, when I do a day-long writing workshop, I spend half the day on writing tips and telling stories. But you know what? I swear I could feel that what these kids really (excuse the adverb, I decided I needed it in this sentence) wanted to do was WRITE. So I hurried through my tips (make writing a habit; read read read; take notes all the time; add trouble to your story; rewrite, rewrite, rewrite), and focused on writing activities. And my hunch was right because when I took a peek at what the kids were producing, I was seriously (another adverb, also required) impressed.

The students were from Grades 8 to 12. I teach college here in Montreal, and the MASC kids were as strong, and perhaps even stronger than many of the students I teach. Also, to be honest, not all of my students are keen on writing. The students who signed up for the MASC festival know that they want to make writing a big part of their lives. Every single one has talent, but I told them something my grandfather (who was a successful painter) once told me: "Talent is only a small part of success. What you need more than talent is the ability to work hard."

I thought I'd share some of my favourite lines (and subjects) that the students came up with.

Here goes --

When I asked the students to write about a memory (if you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that I think memories are stories asking to be told), a student named Wolfe recalled wandering away from his friends when they were at the soccer pitch. That's when he met another kid who was also by himself. Listen to Wolfe's dialogue: "'You alone too?' he asked. "'Ya. How did you end up alone?'" Simple, direct, this snippet of dialogue takes us right into Wolfe's memory -- and makes us want to know more about the boys and their conversation.

Later, when I asked the students to write about a moment of change in their lives, Kieran started her piece with the line, "Silence is the sound that I fear most." I LOVE IT. Also, it would make a great book title. Even typing in that line now I get goosebumps -- which for me is a sign that I am reading or hearing something beautiful. A student named Anna wrote about getting lost in an old age home. Oh, Anna, that's such a good topic for a story. You're gonna write it, aren't you? Ksenia wrote about torturing her fifth grade math teacher -- another amazing topic for a story.

My only complaint about the day was that IT WENT TOO QUICKLY. As I told Wendy Hartley, MASC's English program director, these students didn't really (another adverb alert!) need me, they already have a ton of talent. But maybe I gave them a bit of extra inspiration and some tips they will be able to use as they continue to develop as writers.

Many thanks to all my friends at MASC -- special shout-outs to Bonnie and Maurie for ferrying me from and to the train station, to Faith Seltzer for brigning me to MASC in the first place, to the authors and illustrators for your great presentations (watch this blog for more on that). But most of all, thanks to the students. WRITE ON!

 

 

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Writing Workshop to Mark International Day for the Commemoration of Victims of the Holocaust

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will know that usually, I come right home from doing a workshop and write a blog entry. But after today's workshop -- offered at the Montreal Holocaust Museum to mark International Day for the Commemoration of the Victims of the Holocaust -- I needed to take some time to process all my thoughts and feelings.

The six grown-ups in in the second row in today's pic are all survivors of the Holocaust. Today, they agreed to be interviewed by the teenagers you see with them in the pic. My job was pretty easy -- I spent about 20 minutes prepping the young reporters, sharing my own tips for interviewing people about difficult subjects. I told the kids to watch their subject's body language, I told them to get quotes, to look for stories that were sad or funny or moving. But most of all, I asked them to get their subjects to tell them something they had never shared before. Not an easy task considering that some of the survivors have shared their stories with hundreds, even thousands of other students.

The kids were A-MAZING!! As survivor Leon Celemencki told me, "Their questions were different from all the others I've been asked." Survivor Leslie Vertes was also impressed with the kids who interviewed him: "They want to know the truth. They don't ask easy questions."

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, the more than 30 kids who turned up this afternoon came ON A WEEKEND to learn about interviewing and writing. They were from all over Montreal and some were even from the Laurentians. Several attend Marie de France High School, and were accompanied by their History teacher Anne Marguet.

True to the real experience of being a reporter, the kids were under deadline pressure. They had a little under an hour to conduct their interviews (they worked in groups of 5 or 6), then 20 minutes to produce a paragraph in which they shared the most interesting or moving information they had learned, and then they took another 20 minutes to read and listen to each other's paragrphs.

I don't have room to share all the stories here (hopefully the Montreal Holocaust Museum will collate the paragraphs and post them on-line for the public), but I'll tell you a little about what some of the Marie de France students learned about survivor Fishel Goldig. The interview was conducted in French, and the students' paragraph was written in French, so I'm translating here: "Because they knew the SS was coming, Fishel was hiding in a shed in the Ukraine with his mother, his aunt and his cousin. Fishel and his mother hid under a mattress; his aunt and cousin hid underneath two wash basins. The SS murdered Fishel's aunt and cousin. He heard the sounds of their rifles, as well as the moaning and groaning of his aunt and cousin as they lay dying. Then the SS men lifted the corner of the mattress, but because of the way Fishel and his mother were lying on the diagonal, the SS did not find them. Even after the SS left, Fishel and his mothr didn't dare move despite the agony of their relatives a few feet away."

Amazing, no? Heartbreaking, no?

At the end of our afternoon together, Fishel said he wanted to say a few more words to the kids. He told them. "We the survivors have an obligation to tell our stories. You people have an obligation too. You have to make sure we don't have another Holocaust."

On my way out of the museum, I spoke with Emma Wong, a Grade 7 student at Durocher School. This is how Emma summed up the afternoon: "Even though it happend so long ago, the information they passed on we will have to pass on to the next generation."

Special thanks to all my friends at the Holocaust Museum: Alice Herscovitch, Sarah Fogg, Audrey Licop and Eszter Andor. Thanks to my friend, lawyer and writer Myra Shuster who helped the students with their interviews. Thanks to the students for being sensitive and brilliant, and not being afraid to ask difficult questions. And to the Holocaust survivors -- what can I say? Thanks is not enough. I so respect and admire, and am inspired by your courage. God bless all of you!

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"My cat is so fat, it's the size of two houses" -- Back at Kingsdale Academy

My heart feels very full after a second day of writing workshops at Kingsdale Academy. I'm accustomed to working with teenagers, so it was a special treat to work with Grades Three and Four classes last Friday and again today at Kingsdale. It was also a treat to work with Miss Arcamone, a wonderful, warm and skilled teacher. And today, even school principal Miss Glave came to sit in for part of a workshop. How cool is that? And what a great example for the students!

I love working with teenagers, who are grappling with so much and trying to figure themselves out. But the wonderful thing about working with younger students is that, in an odd way, they are more confident, more free when they put pen to paper.

Let me give you some examples. The title of today's blog entry is "My cat is so fat he's the size of two houses." That line was written by Zoe, and it cracked me up. So original and playful -- and can't you just imagine the illustration? I see a cat with two houses in his belly!

Today's pic comes from something a student named Bianca wrote in preparation for my visit today. When I met the kids last week, I asked them to interview someone elderly (such as a grandparent) and find out what the hardest thing was that that person ever went through. Bianca learned that by the time her grandfather was 15, both his parents were dead. Luckily, he was able to move in with his older sister. We talked about how, in stories (as in life), sad and heartwarming things can happen at the same time (such as the loss of both of the boy's parents, but also the supportive love of his big sister). Beautiful work, Bianca -- and I love your drawings too!

Another one of my favourite lines of the day came from a student named Trevon who began his story with the words, "Once when I was not born." BOOK TITLE ALERT! DON'T YOU LOVE IT?

A student named Rylan interviewed his grandmother who grew up in Trinidad. When she was five years old, she was ill, but no one believed her. So she had to go to work planting rice in the wetlands. Rylan even found out that there were snakes in the wetlands. What beautiful details, Rylan! Though I've never visited Trinidad, you took me there with your story.

Next week, I go back to teaching full-time at Marianopolis College after an eight-month sabbatical. But you know what? The school visits I've done the last few weeks have reminded me what a privilege it is to work with bright students, and enthusiastic teachers and librarians. To the kids at Kingsdale, you guys are amazing. Keep reading, keep writing. I have no doubt that some of you will become professional writers!

 

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Sweet Last Day at St. Thomas High School

I'm just home from the last of my four days of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School. In today's pic, two students are demonstrating ideal body language (one of my favourite subjects) for when an author pays a visit. Meet Daniel and Cordelia (don't you LOVE the name? Cordelia was the best sister in Shakespeare's King Lear.). Notice how both students' pens are in position so they can take notes? Also, do you notice all the stuff that Cordelia wrote down? Evidently, she learned A LOT!!

Stories, stories everywhere.

When Cordelia was packing up her books, she told me we had met last year at the Los Angeles Airport! It suddenly came back to me that I'd had a lovely conversation with her, her mum and her sister. Though I must not have learned her name, because I'd definitely have remembered meeting someone named CORDELIA!

Today, I worked with four groups of Grade Nine classes. I started with Mr. Katz and Ms. Puliotti's groups. Just as I was starting, there was an announcement over the  PA system: "Bus 82 is arriving late." Well, my brain went right into WHAT IF? mode. (I'm always telling students that asking WHAT IF? is a great way to move a story forward.) What if there was an outbreak of a terrible virus on Bus 82? What if all the infected students were about to enter the library where I was doing my workshop? (I must admit this WHAT IF? scenario may have been inspired by the fact that I am coming down with a cold.) Anyway, a few minutes later, some new students turned up. Now was my opportunity to demonstrate another important part of being a writer: DOING RESEARCH. I asked a student named Alex whether he'd been on Bus 82. He had! Then I got him to tell us the story of what had happened: "The first bus broke down. Then the second bus broke down. We had to wait in the parking lot at Walmart." Interesting, no? Don't you think you could all that for a jumping off point for a novel? Add a little trouble -- and see what happens!

Oh, it was another day for trying out a new writing exercise. Unfortunately, I can't take credit for this one! Credit goes to Mr. Katz, who suggested it to me before the workshop: "Why don't you ask the kids to write about their memory of their first day at high school?" We got great results! Thanks, Mr. Katz. I promise to credit you whenever I use your exercise in the future!

A student named Max wrote about something edible: "the taste of the first cafeteria cookie -- sweet and good." Anjolie remembered how a teacher got upset with her for talking out of turn. "He said, 'Take your shoe and sock off and stick it in your mouth!"

I spent the next periods with Ms. O'Neill's classes. A student named Hassan asked, "Do you ever run out of ideas in general?" I told him NEVER. I am a talented ideas-getter. It's the writing that's difficult!

I talked to Ms. O'Neill's students about SECRETS and how they should try to uncover the secrets in their own families. One student (I'm keeping him anonymous on purpose) stayed behind to tell me the following family secret: "When my dad was 25, he learned that he had a step-sister in Europe." That's quite the secret! WRITE ABOUT IT, SIR!

I ended the day with Mr. Cloney's class. We did Mr. Katz's exercise (see, Mr. Katz, you're credited!). I asked a couple of students for permission to share what they wrote. Victoria remembered feeling "embarrassed because all the kids had phones and I didn't." Excellent start of a story, Victoria! This is how Kyleigh started her paragraph: "I was 20 minutes late because my step-dad brought me to school on his motorbike." Whoo! You've got several interesting stories happening there, Kyleigh. And I definitely want to keep reading!

I'll end today's blog entry by telling you a little about something else a student wrote -- the student and I decided to keep his name confidential too. He wrote down three words: "angry and sad." Then, he explained, "It's a story I can't write about." Here's what  have to say to that: YES YOU CAN, YES YOU SHOULD, YES YOU'RE READY OR YOU WOULDN'T HAVE WRITTEN THAT. CHANGE WHATVER HAPPENED UP SO THAT IT'S LESS ABOUT YOU. MAKE IT ABOUT A DIFFERENT KID. USE THE DIFFICULT THINGS YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED TO INSPIRE YOUR WRITING. THAT'S WHAT ALL OF US WRITERS DO!

How's that for a lively end to my four blogs about visiting St. Thomas? Special thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye for organizing the visit; to librarian Miss Suzanne (Suzanne Halton-Thom) who runs the library on Mondays, for hosting me today and last Monday and for giving me your top-of-the-line Bell Canada ballpoint. Thanks to the teachers; thanks to the kids who came to hang out with me at lunch to show me their work; thanks to my friend, Baie D'Urfe city counselor Wanda Lowensteyn, for whisking me out for a break; thanks to all the kids I worked with for being wonderful. I already miss you guys!

 

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College-Style Class for Grades 3 & 4 Students at Kingsdale Academy

Sometimes, people who don't know much about writing for kids will say something to me such as, "I guess you have to dumb your stories down." Oh, does that every annoy me! What those people don't get is that kids are super smart (sometimes I think they're quite a lot smarter than adults, especially ones who make that sort of remark!!). Here's one thing I know for sure: if a writer dumbed a book down, a kid would hate the book.

Same goes for teaching. Though I have been teaching college for more than 30 years (I know, I know, you'd never have guessed it!! haha!!), and most of the writing workshops I do are at high schools, I was really looking forward to my day today -- I've been asked to do two days of writing workshops for Grades Three and Four students at Kingsdale Academy in Kirkland. And I certainly didn't "dumb down" my lessons. In fact, I treated the eight and nine-year-olds the same way (or pretty close to the same way) I treat my college students. And I think it's safe to say my strategy worked.

See how I'm grinning in today's pic? That's because a student named Geoffrey was showing me his books. Geoffrey began writing books at the age of eight. He's now nine and as you can see, it's been a big year for him! Also, Geoffrey made a clever remark when I was talking about how first drafts are always rough, and need a ton of rewriting. "It's like an artist making a sketch," Geoffrey said. Pretty deep for a nine-year-old, wouldn't you say?

I showed the students my journal and explained that for nearly 30 years, I've been writing three pages a day in a book like the one I had with me. I told them that they need to write regularly too, that writing has to become a habit. I suggested they might try writing just TWO words a day -- one word to describe how their yesterday was, another word to describe how they hope their today will be. They came up with some great answers. Lucas ( a student in the afternoon group) said his yesterday was "tiring" and he hopes his today will be "peaceful." Nice, accurate vocabulary, Lucas!

I used my memory exercise with both the morning and afternoon groups -- I had them remember back to when they were five years old. Daniel remembered when his parents were making pizza: " I can feel my tummy rumbling.... there are green things on the pizza." Don't you love the word rumbling and the fact that there were "green things" on Daniel's pizza? I also loved Sartaj's story. He remembered "my friend's mean sister." I think that would make a great book title, Sartaj: My Friend's Mean Sister. I would definitely buy that book. Sartaj also remembered something that made me laugh (it's always good to make your reader laugh): "finding out bad words in Indian." Write that story up too, Sartaj!

I asked the afternoon group how many of them love to read. Imagine my delight when every single one of Mrs. Arcamone's students raised their hands! Wow! I have to say a word here about Mrs. Arcamone. She is a special teacher, who has a calming effect on her classes. In fact, after lunch, she gave them quiet meditative time, accompanied by music -- and you know what? It was good for me too!

I'll be back to work with Mrs. Arcamone's kids next Friday. In the mean time, I gave them a few choices of things they can work on before they see me again. My plan for next week is to roll up my sleeves and give the students some feedback on their writing.

Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you the most fun part (for me). I test-read my soon-to-be-released chapter book, Princess Angelica: Camp Catastrophe to both groups. They're exactly the right age for the book. And I'm pretty sure they liked it. I think that because several asked to borrow my copy. YAY! DID I SAY YAY? Also, Mrs. Arcamone told me a great story. She used to teach kindergarten and when she did, she told her students SHE WAS A PRINCESS (like the girl in my book!!). She told me that she used to tell her kindergarten kids, "I"m just pretending to be a teacher!"

So, here's to writers and storytellers of all ages. Here's to writing about difficult subjects, being courageous, and finding solace in turning our lived experiences into stories that can make readers laugh and cry. Thanks to librarain Mrs. Di Maulo for the invite, and to Mrs. Arcamone for sharing your delightful kids (and your story) with me. And to the kids, what can I say? You know how I'm smiling in today's pic? That's exactly what happens to my face when I think about our time together today!!!

 

 

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In Which I Invent a New Writing Exercise -- that Works!

What in the world, you may be asking yourself, are the students doing in today's pic? Making origami? Nope, though they are folding pieces of paper.

So, I was back today at St. Thomas High School for the third of four days of writing workshops. I took today's pic during first period, when I was working with Mr. Rowland's Grade Nine class. I had just told them something I once heard David Small, the author and illustrator of the brilliant graphic novel Stiches, say: ""Write about what keeps you up at night." That's when I came up with my brand new exercise. And it worked! I asked the students to fold up the bottom of their sheets of paper, and write one sentence about what keeps them up at night -- a worry, a fear, a bad memory. After they were done, I told them to tear off the strip of paper, then fold it up into a tiny piece ... and wait, there's still more to my exercise! I told them to hide those folded-up slivers somewhere special -- in their pencil cases, in their night tables ... and to keep them always. Then, I told them, when they are ready (there's no telling when that might be) they should turn whatever is written on those slivers into stories.

Next I worked with one of Mr. Katz's Grade Nine classes. I did a variation on the same exercise (this time I asked the student to write a sentence describing the hardest thing they have ever gone through). A student named Jonathan commented afterwards, "I really want to throw it out." I liked that strong emotion, Jonathan, and don't you throw out the piece of paper! By the way, even if you do, that experience is part of you. You might as well think of it as material to use in a story!

We did a longer exercise afterwards that involved a memory from when the students were ten years old. Melissa gave me permission to quote her moving, powerful opening line: "My mom is crying." See how the language is simple and direct... and how you want to keep reading to find out what's going on? Beautiful work, Melissa! Olivier made a list of thoughts. I asked his permission to quote the first and last ones. He started with the thought "Dad loss" -- Olivier explained that he was remembering what happened when his parents split up (a difficult memory, but another one that makes for important stories). And Olivier ended his list with the thought, "Hormones begin." I told Oliver that we need honest stories about what it's like to be a boy growing up -- and having to deal with hormones! Olivier, WRITE IT!

I ended the morning with a double-group: Ms. Yates's Grade Nines (if you read yesterday's blog entry, you may remember that they drove me a little crazy) together with another one of Mr. Katz's Grade Nines. And guess what? THE COMBINATION WORKED. And guess what else? I had asked the "challenging" group yesterday to see if they could interview their grandparents and find out the hardest things they had ever been through. To my delight, several of the students actually did it. So, while the students were working on a writing exercise, I read the stories about their grandparents -- and they were super. Sophia wrote about her grandfather growing up poor in Italy: "there wasn't much money for food or clothing." It turns out that Sophia is going to Italy this summer -- and that her grandfather might be coming. AMAZING!! Bring your notebook, Sophia. Get your granddad to tell you more. It'll be easier for him to remember his past when he is in Italy. Jessica wrote about how her grandfather "almost died in a shooting line" in Lebanon. And Ben wrote about how his grandfather, who worked for VIA in the 1980s, was at Central Station during an explosion: "He saw a woman whose jacket melted onto her." Those are all powerful stories -- keep working on them.

I must say that one of the highlights of my day was staying to have lunch in the library, where I was joined by five students who wanted to show me their writing and get some feedback. You guys were amazing. While I was working with the students, I have to admit I forgot that they were only in high school. I was especially pleased that Jonathan (the same Jonathan I mentioned before) decided to develop what he had done during a writing exercise yesterday into a real story. YAY!! Sean, a serious student whom I met last year, dropped by too. I learned from his writing that Sean has a warm sense of humour. My favourite line in his piece? "Being a hero is hard work." Nice!!

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday for my last day of workshops. And I'll be around for both lunch periods. So if you go to St. Thomas, and you're an aspiring writer, get to work this weekend and bring me something to read on Monday!

Many thanks to the kids today, to their teachers, and especially to my friend librarian Mrs. Pye for the invite -- and for making me (and all the kids at St. Thomas) feel so welcome at your library!

 

 

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In Which I Meet Clever Kids -- and a Senator

I do get to meet a lot of clever kids when I do school visits. But it isn't every day I get to meet a REAL LIVE SENATOR. I was at St. Thomas High School today for my second in a series of four days of writing workshops. Usually, I do my workshops in the library. Except today I got bumped by a senator. That's me in today's pic with Senator André Pratt, who was, for many years, the editor in chief of La Presse here in Montreal.

Senator Pratt was at the school to talk to about how the Canadian government works. I had a break during one of his sessions, so I stayed to hear him. But my favourite part of meeting him was when I asked him a question that I was wondering about during his talk: what kind of teenager did André Pratt used to be?

Well, you're gonna love his answer. (I wrote it down for you.) "I was not a good student. I was busy doing other things, such as reading a lot. In class, I asked many many questions. I still do that. That's why I became a journalist. Also, I used to be very funny."

Senator Pratt's answer should give hope to all the students out there who are not at the top of their class. Who knows? You could end up being a senator one day too! Also, did you notice that Senator Pratt said he READ A LOT. HINT! HINT! YOU SHOULD TRY READING A LOT TOO.

I worked with four classes again today. I started with Ms. Yates's Grade 8's. There were some interesting CHARACTERS in that room! (We authors LOVE interesting characters. Where do you think I get my inspiration?) A student named Matthieu was the class "commentator." When I remarked that a student named Jack is a good nodder, Matthieu said, "Our history teacher says Jack nods even when he doesn't get it!" And when I observed that a student named Angela seemed to be in a great mood, Matthieu said, "I've never seen her not happy." And it turns out, Matthieu has a story of his own. He's been suspended for skipping detentions. As Matthieu explained to me, "I don't go to detentions. It's against my religion." DON'T YOU THINK MATTHIEU DESERVES TO BE IN A BOOK?! (I do.)

Next up was Mr. Dagenais's Grade 8 group. These students were a little quiet at first, but then they livened up. I noticed that a student named Jason's right elbow was red, and that a student named Amy had a cough. I made these observations to show the class that writers need to observe stuff. (Especially writers like me, who have asthma since we're afraid to catch colds!). I wanted to learn more about what Jason did to his right elbow to make it red, but there wasn't time. There could be a story there! A student named Nathan stayed after class to ask me what my favourite book is -- why Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, of course!

Mr. Cloney's Grade 9's were zippy and had lots to say. When I asked the class whether they hate their first drafts (if you know me, you'll know that I'm all about despising the first draft... the work is in the REWRITE!!), a student named Kristin answered, "Not always." Then she added something that I thought was brilliant. She said, "Sometimes I have really good ideas and I like to stick to them." YES YES AND DID I ALREADY SAY YES?!!! That's it, exactly, Kristin! We start with an idea, hopefully a super good one, and we stick with it through the rewriting, refining process.

Now, what can I tell you about the last group of the day -- Ms. Yates's Grade 9's? Well, let's say they were what could be called A HANDFUL. I had to read them the riot act several times, and I had to separate two boys because they were paying more attention to each other than to MOI! But ... well... I still kind of liked them. I'll work with them again tomorrow morning. Stay tuned for tomorrow's blog entry to find out how that goes!! Oh, a lovely student named Costa stayed to chat and had this to say: "Some people need to beat their kids in this class." Ms. Yates overheard Costa's comment and you know what she said to me? "Write that down and use it in your blog!" CAN YOU TELL I HAD A FUN DAY?

 

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Busy (and Fun) Day at St. Thomas High School

Hello hello, blog readers! I'm just home from a busy (and fun) day at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. This is my I-don't-even-know-how-many-th year doing a series of writing workshops at St. Thomas. To be honest, I was kind of thinking they might be sick of me by now -- but  nope, I got invited back. Lucky me! But because I've already met some of the students I'll be working with this year I promised I'd focus more than usual on writing exercises. So today, I tested out a brand-new exercise. It's inspired by my upcoming chapter book, Princess Angelica: Camp Catastrophe. That book is based on something mischievous I did when I was ten -- I told the girls in my bunk at camp that I was a PRINCESS and THEY BELIEVED ME. So today, I asked the students to think back to when they were that age -- and to write about the imaginary person they would have liked to pretend to be.

I jotted down some of my favourite answers.

Katrina, who is one of Ms. Broniszewski's grade eight students, wrote: "My name is Matilda. I am a ten-year-old girl, and I have mind powers. I can move anything I want with my mind. I love reading, and have read every book in the library." Katrina, I think your answer is not only well-written (plus I like how you used a comma after girl and before and), but it also shows a lot of creativity!

I had Mr. Katz's grade nine class after lunch -- and though they were a little distracted at first, they turned out to be a bright, lively group. This is what Kirsten wrote about her imaginary self: "My name is Kirsten and I'm a troublemaker. I get into trouble, but I don't care." I like the energetic, willful tone of those sentences. The real Kirsten assured me that she is NOT a troublemaker at school (though occasionally one at home!).  Kirsten's classmate, Jonathan, also came up with a fascinating alter-ego: "My name is Jones Florent. At the age of fourteen, I incited a revolt in school." Well, Jonathan, I'd definitely want to keep reading your story. I also love the word INCITE. Nice vocabulary, Sir!

Because I'll be seeing some of the classes twice (I'm doing four days of workshops in all at St. Thomas), I had time for more warm-up exercises with some of the groups. When I was working with Mr. Rowland's grade nine class, we came up with a list of our favourite words that begin with the letter G. I think my favourite of the favourites was Alyssa's word: gobsmacked. That's quite the word, Alyssa. I also like guacamole -- both the word and the snack!!I

I tried to share as many of my writing tips as possible --how observation is important, that writers need to do research in order to write books, that it's normal to hate our first drafts.

I finished the day with another one of Ms. Broniszewski's grade eight classes. I had that class write about a childhood memory. I told them that memory is an important tool in a writer's toolbox. A student named Noah wrote about visiting a loved one in hospital: "The awful smell of medication fills my nostrils." Effective use of the sense of smell there, Noah!

I don't usually quote myself when I write my blog, but you know what? I told the last group a line that I quite liked. So I'm going to tell it to you, too. Here it comes: "I think a memory is a story that's asking to be told."

What do you think? Does it feel true to you too?

Okay, I'm off to READ ON THE COUCH. AHHHH, that's another part of my work (and pleasure) as a writer. I'll be back tomorrow and Wednesday at St. Thomas. And I'll be blogging about it.

Thanks to the kids for being wonderful, to Mrs. Pye for the invite, to Suzanne for welcoming me to the library today, and to the teachers for sharing your students with me!

 

 

 

 

 

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Belle Journée à l'Ecole Sécondaire de la Seigneurie... WHOOPS!

Now why would I call this blog entry, "Belle Journée à l'Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie --- WHOOPS!"? Well, I added the WHOOPS because I wasn't supposed to speak French today at this high school in Beauport, just outside of Quebec City. That's because I was there to work with Mr. Lord's three Enriched English As A Second Lanuage classes  -- and I was pretty good about following that instruction (most of the day!!).

The three groups I worked with could not have been more different. The first group was focused and studious. We actually got into an interesting talk about whether, if the students improve in one language (say English), it will help them with their French. A student named Cédrick stayed to continue this discussion after my workshop. He told me he loves writing stories -- in both French and English. I told him I think our province, and our country, is ready for a story told in BOTH officlal languages AT THE SAME TIME! Cédrick gave me a great example of how his brain works bilingually. He was writing a horror story about a corpse (in English), and when it came to the descripton, he thought of the French word "ensanglanté" -- so he used that to inspire the following description in English: "a bloodied corpse." I LOVE IT. And I don't think in all my years of working as a writer, I have ever used the word "bloodied" in that way. Cédrick, if you don't mind, I think I'm going to steal it!

The second group seemed a little sleepy, but you know what? When I started to talk about my historical novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp (and which all three classes are reading), they totally came alive! My mum died just over a year ago -- and this part of my day really made me miss her. Because in the old days, I'd have phoned her in Montreal to tell her that her story turned things around in the classroom. She'd have loved that!

The last group was ... well... amazing. Though it was the end of the school day, these kids had lots to say and they made many great points. Here are some examples. When I showed them the diary I write in every morning, a student named Nada tried to peek into it. I thought that was great because it shows that she is SNOOPY -- an essential trait for a writer. Then a student named Mia wanted to know exactly what I do in my diary. When I told her that i use it for "whatever," she wasn't satisfied. Mia asked: "Are you writing it as a story or a description?" That question -- so specific and probing -- really impressed me. (By the way, I explained to Mia that I don't usually write stories in my diary, but I sometimes describe people and places. Mostly, I really do write about "whatever.") Later, when I was telling the students how I HATE my first drafts, I asked them, "What do I do then? GIve yp?" I loved a student named Margaux's answer: "You work at it."

That's a nice end for today's blog post. That's what it's all about -- working at it, playing sometimes, and not giving up even when you feel like it.

I told all three groups today that it's because of my grandfather -- a Dutch artist who was forced to produce propaganda drawings for the Nazis -- that I am alive and that all my family is alive. Some days, I told them, I feel very privileged -- that I can laugh, and teach, and write, and have a delicious dinner and see beautiful things like a wintery afternoon in Old Quebec. Today, working with these kids made me feel that sense of privilege. Special thanks to their teacher, Mr. Lord, for inviting me back to the school. Thanks, too, to Miss Verity, the lovely English (from England!) monitor who is assisting Mr. Lord. And thanks to all of the students for making me feel so privileged. Now get to work on your own stories!!!

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Miracle Cure for the Stomach Flu: Visit to Laval Junior Academy

I don't want to give you the gorey details, but I came down with a bad case of the stomach flu earlier this week. When I got up this morning, I was still feeling a little woozy, and I contemplated cancelling today's visit to Laval Junior Academy where I was scheduled to do my last day of writing workshops with Miss Milena's and Miss Farrell's English classes. But in the end, I decided to make my way over. And guess what? Those kids fixed me!

Maybe I'll start with some of my favourite comments from the kids today. When he was finishing up a creative exercise, a student named Ryan told me, "I don't think I did it right." Which led me to tell him WHEN IT COMES TO CREATIVE WORK, YOU CAN'T DO IT WRONG. YOU JUST HAVE TO DO IT!  My other favourite line was when a student named Fred wanted to read my soon-to-be-released book Princess Angelica: Camp Catatrophe (I happened to have a copy hot off the press), and after about ten minutes of reading, Fred called out, "This is actually a good book!" (You didn't have to sound SO SURPRISED ABOUT IT, FRED!!) By the way, that is Fred IN RED in today's pic, and he's with Massimo -- and guess what? Today was Massimo's birthday!

Another cool thing about today: I invented a new writing exercise (and it worked!). I credit the flu for inspiring me. I asked the students to write about the hardest thing they have been through, assuring them that I would not read whatever they wrote. (In fact, I told them to fold up their writing afterwards and hide it some place, but NEVER TO THROW IT AWAY). The next step was for them to identify one or two strong FEELINGS associated with the memory, and then the final step was to write a fictionalized version -- changing up characters and events so the story could not be linked to them. Some of the feelings that the students recognized were: numbness, regret, sadness, anger, disappointment and trauma. You know what I say to all that? WOW -- and also USE IT in your writing. The events authors describe don't need to be true, but the FEELINGS HAVE TO BE REAL.

Another highlight of the day was when Miss Milea's Grade 7's reported that they actually did the "homework" I'd assigned them. I suggested that they interview a grandparent (or another elderly person) and ask the same question -- what was the hardest thing they'd ever been through. Several students had FABULOUS STORIES to share with me and their classmates. I think my favourite was Olivia's -- her grandmother told her that she was one of seven children growing up during wartime in Greece. Her family was so poor that Olivia's great-grandmother had to give her youngest child, a daughter, away to a neighbour who could afford to take better care of her. The older children all looked out for the little one in the schoolyard. DON'T YOU JUST LOVE THAT STORY?

There were even more wonderful things that happened today. It turns out that the Grade Seven students at Laval Junior have had to move lockers -- which led Kiera and Kasandra (who share a locker) to tell me that their old locker was HAUNTED. That definitely gave me goosebumps, which for me is a sign that there's a story there: THE CASE OF THE HAUNTED LOCKER. I like that for a book title, don't you?

Finally, my day ended with a sweet surprise: a lovely Happy 2018 card signed by the students. It's full of special messages. I thought I'd include one here: "Thank you so very much for helping all of us develop our writing, and for being so open with us about your life and your mother's as it helped me a lot." Know what? That card is the best holiday present you could give this author! Thanks to all of the kids for being awesome, and to your awesome teachers Miss Milea and Miss Farrell for hosting me. HERE'S TO WRITING AND STORIES AND OPENING OUR HEARTS. And thanks for curing my stomach flu!!

 

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Great Start to the Week -- Pointe-Claire Library Visit

My week got off to a happy start with this morning's visit to Pointe-Claire Library. I was there to work with students from John Rennie High School, which happens to be just across the street. The students were Mr. Elson's Grade Ninew -- and he told me they'd just finished a creative writing assignment -- and that he was impressed with their talent and hard work.

Though I had to do a bit of crowd control (hey, I'm a teacher too, so I have tricks for getting students to stay quiet and focused!), I think that overall, I managed to share a lot of information. In fact, in the 75 minutes I had with the students, I pretty much told them everything I've figured out in a lifetime of writing, such as it's all about the re-writing, that stories need trouble, and that if you know the "smell" of trouble, it will help you become a writer.

A few details from the visit:

A student named Nathan had the perfect body language for someone listening to a writer -- I snapped a pic, but in the end, I decided to use this one instead (it's from when a few students came to say good-bye to me). But in the pic I took or him, Nathan is: smiling, leaning in so he can look right at me, and also looking very smart (the glasses help, Nathan!).

A student who didn't want to tell me her name asked an excellent question: "When you use real people in your stories. do you ask their permisssion?" I think she was HORRIFIED when I answered, "No!" But then I explained that mostly, real people INSPIRE my characters -- I usually change them up so they are not identifiable. So you see, I'm not THAT EVIL!

I student named Elianne impressed me with her SNOOPINESS. (I had told the students that snoopiness is an important trait for writers.) I was explaining that when I was doing a writing exercise recently with students, one yount man got quite upset. Elianne asked: "What sort of exercise did you do?" I explained that it was an exercise having to do with memory -- and I actually ended the workshop today by getting the students to do a similar exercise. As I told them, memory is an important part of a writer's toolbox.

When I told the students that I run and that running helps my writing, a student named Gabriel commented: "You think when you run." Later, Gabriel told me that though he doesn't run, walking works to help him think. "When I need to think," he said, "I go for a walk by the water in Trois-Rivières, where I used to live."

Because there were so many students, there wasn't time for me to take a peek at all their writing. But I did get a chance to read what Nikko wrote during the memory exercise -- he remembered playing soccer at school when he was in Grade Four. My favourite line in his piece was: "the lunch ladies got mad because the kids jumped over the fence." Nikko, you should write about those lunch ladies -- and how the kids drove them crazy!

Mr. Elson happens to be married to Mary Frauley, my dear friend and office partner at Marianopolis College. So it was a special treat for me that Mary and their daughter Tess were in the audience too. Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you something SUPER INTERESTING that Mr. Elson told me -- and there's definitely a story behind it! He said, "One of my students told me, 'It's nice to go into that building [the library] because I'm banned from there!" I THINK WHOEVER THAT PERSON IS SHOULD TURN HIS EXPERIENCE INTO A STORY!!

So... thanks to Mr. Elson for bringing your students out to the library this morning; thanks to Mary and Tess for coming too; thanks to the students for being MOSTLY excellent and for doing a GREAT JOB during the writing exercise. And finally, thanks to teen services librarian Radha-Prema McAllister for the invite -- and the happy start to the week!

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Star Pupil Comes for Writing Workshop on a Snow Day in Quaqtag!

There was no school this morning at Isummavik School here in Quaqtaq, Nunavik. But because artist Thomas Kneubuhler and I were getting a little worried about our assignment – we’re here to help students contribute a chapter of words and photos to this year’s edition of Quebec Roots, a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project – we got Cameron, one of the kids’ teachers, to put out an all-points-bulletin. Cameron let the kids know we were here at the Landholding Hotel – and available for writing and photography workshops!

So I was pretty thrilled when a student named Ashley turned up! YAY ASHLEY! Together, we worked on a whole pile of GORGEOUS POEMS. Our theme for the chapter is boys and girls in Quaqtaq. One of Ashley’s poems is about picking blueberries in summer. In the poem, she explains that the boys only go berry picking if it’s a school activity.

When we finished our work together, I asked Ashley to tell me one thing she’d learned about writing today. Her answer? “I learned we have to go over it again and again.” YAY AGAIN FOR ASHLEY! I love that lesson. It’s basically at the heart of all good writing.

Before I let Ashley go home for lunch, I told her my main advice for her as a writer: “Trust your own voice.” We saw that together when she was working on her poem about relationships. Ashley gave me permission to quote some of the poem here:

“What I know about relationships I have mostly learned from watching my parents and grandparents. I’ve learned: don’t hurt the person you love, don’t leave them alone for long, and always try to make them happy. The people we love should do the same for us. If the person we love hurts us, or leaves us alone for long, or doesn’t try to make us happy, we should … I don’t know … maybe dump them!”

Can’t you hear Ashley’s voice just from reading her words? You know what my favourite part is? – besides the lessons – it’s when Ashley says, “I don’t know.” Because that’s Ashley’s voice.

Ahh, it’s been a lovely start to the day here in Quaqtaq. Thanks to Ashley, and to her mum for telling her she had to come to the Landholding Hotel to work with us!

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Happy Day at Isummasaqvik School in Quaqtaq

Hello again from Nunavik!

This week, artist Thomas Kneubuhler and I are in Quagtag, another village on the Ungava coast. We are here for a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Quebec Roots. Our assignment this week is to help students at Isummasaqvik School contribute a chapter to a book that will be published in 2018. We'll help them tell a story about their community using words and photographs.

We're working with Cameran's and Arul's classes. Our first task was to get the students to choose a topic for their chapter. So far our tentative title is "Girls and Boys in Quagtaq -- Then and Now." (I LOVE THE TOPIC.) The kids want to write about traditional Inuit gender roles -- how men have traditionally done the hunting, and women the sewing -- and how that has begun to change.

This morning, I helped the students write a poem about hunting and sewing. When we got to the sewing part, two boys, Thomas and Putulik, explained that they sew too. As Thomas told me, "We fix destruction." As you can imagine, that line made it into our poem!

This afternoon, we worked on a poem with the super-fantastic title "My Kamiks Are In the Freezer." Kamiks, in case you didn't know it, are Inuit boots. The main writer of the poem was a student named Natasha, who came up with the line that gave the poem its title. I had a lot of fun hearing about all the steps that go into making kamiks. Natasha would maybe have left out some of the steps, but her classmate Saijuula wouldn't let her! As Saijuula told me afterwards, "It's important to put in the details." Spoken like a true writer, Saijuula! What made working on the poem extra-fun is that Natasha has a great sense of humour. This is how she ended her poem: "This is the first and last time I make kamiks. It's too much work!"

It also helped that a student named Dallacy was wearing a pair of kamiks that her mum had made for her. In today's pic, you can see me laughing with the girls -- and holding up one of Dallacy's kamiks for you to see.

Tomorrow they're predicting a giant blizzard here in Quaqtaq. I don't know about the kids, but I'll be brokenhearted if school gets cancelled. I am so looking forward to getting more poems and stories out of these students -- and to seeing their photographs.

Three cheers for the kids we've been working with, three more for their teachers and for Amber Doughwright, the ped counselor from Kativik School Board who organized this trip... and three cheers for us. On my run this morning, I thought to myself, "Monique, right this moment, you are the luckiest woman in all of Quebec!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Quebec Roots Goes to Ajagutak School in Tasiujaq, Nunavik

Good morning from Ajagutak School in Nunavik, Quebec!

I'm here with artist Thomas Kneubuhler for an exciting project called Quebec Roots, that is part of the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation's educational programming.

We are here to work with Angela's Cycle I students, and Alex's Cycle 2's. These students will be contributing a chapter to this year's edition of Quebec Roots -- a real live book!

Our job this morning was to help the students come up with a topic for their chapter. We spent about a half-hour brainstorming. The two most popular topics were after-school jobs and playing. It was Thomas's idea that we combine those topics into "Work and Play." Great idea, don't you think?

I got the students to do a little writing and right now, Thomas is teaching them some basic photography skills. In today's pic, you can see Thomas showing the kids a photo taken by one of Thomas's friends when he was in the Rockies. In the photo, there's sunshine in the foreground, but there are dark clouds overhead and in the background. As Thomas told the students, "Trouble is coming." Which I thought was great because I am always telling kids in my writing workshops that TROUBLE IS LIKE GASOLINE -- IT MOVES A STORY FORWARD.

I'm going to end this blog entry with the ending of one the poems two students, George and Jaiku, wrote about their part-time job at the youth centre:

"We like earning money

I bought a skidoo with my earnings.

But we also feel good about our work

The youth centre is a safe place for kids in Tasiujaq

It protects them from the wolves

And other stuff."

So, what do you think? When I read something beautiful, I get goosebumps. I got goosebumps when I just typed up that last stanza of the boys' poem.

Thomas and I will be here till tomorrow. Then it's off to Quaqtaq to work with more young writers and photographers! LUCKY US!!

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Surprise Writing (and Photography) Workshops in Kuujjuaq!

Today’s blog post comes to you from Kuujjuaq, in Nunavik, Quebec. I am here with my friend photographer Thomas Kneubuhler (he's behind me in today's pic) for a Blue Metropolis project called Quebec Roots, in which students from across Quebec work with teams of writers and photographers in order to contribute a chapter to a real-life book that will be published next year.

Only Thomas and I weren’t really supposed to be in Kuujuaq – except for a quick stopover at the airport. But because of flight delays, we ended up overnighting here – and then we decided we might as well do a combination writing and photography workshop this morning at Jaanimmarik School. (Thanks Amber Douthwright, a ped counsellor at Kativik School Board for getting all this organized in a jiffy!)

Though the teachers (Yussef, Guillaume, Kelsey and Sebastien) only learned at the last minute we’d be turning up in their classrooms, I think it’s fair to say that … well… the kids had fun and learned a thing or two (and we had a blast).

We started the morning with Yussef and Guillaume’s Sec. II classes. Though I had to wake them up a little, they turned out to be a lively, bright group. When I explained that I always hate my first drafts and asked them what they think I do after I finish a first draft, a student named Shannon answered, “Rewrite!” Exactly, Shannon! And a student named Julian helped me with my Inuktitut pronunciation: “Be loose; it’s better.” (Julian also had some beautiful photographs to show Thomas.)

I loved getting to hear Thomas’s presentation this morning. He showed the students one of his photos of a security guard, and explained that he took about 100 pics of the guard before he got it right. Which prompted me to call out, “See! That’s like rewriting!”

Thomas also told both groups of students that in artistic photography (as opposed say to fashion photography or sports photography), the artist has to come up with an idea. He told the kids, “The idea has to come from you. Something you personally are fascinated by or care about.” That’s definitely true for writing projects too!

We also worked with Kelsey and Sebastien’s Sec I students, plus a couple of Sec V’s (those are the kids in today's pic). I’m not supposed to have favourites, but a student named Makimma stole my heart when I asked the same question I’d asked the earlier group: “What do writers like me do when we finish our first draft and we hate it?” Makimma answered, “Re-try.” You know what, Makimma? I like re-try even more than rewrite! That’s because, as with so many things, including writing and photography, trying and trying again and then trying some more… well that’s really what makes it happen.

We’re off next to the village of Tasujiak, then on to Quaqtaq. Stay tuned for more blog entries – and adventures! Thanks to our friends in Kuujjuaq for being so much fun today!

 

 

 

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Day 3 at Laval Junior Academy

The sweet face in today's pic belongs to Kiara -- one of the students I worked with again today at Laval Junior Academy. It turns out that Kiara took the advice I gave her class last week to heart: to make writing a habit! See that notebook Kiara is holding up? It's her new journal -- and she's written six entries in it since last Friday. Yay, Kiara! You totally made my day. Nothing makes me happier than getting kids hooked on writing!

So, I jotted down all kinds of interesting notes for today's blog post. Now I have to SELECT my favourites. (I told the students how for writers, the SELECTION of DETAILS is an important part of the writing process.) So here come a few details from today's workshops.

When I was telling Miss Milea's Grade 7 class about different kinds of writing they could do in their journals (catharsis, observation, reflection and intution), I explained that intuitive writing can include making lists, writing about dreams, and drawing with words. A student named Megan said, "You mean 'rule-breaking writing.'" I LOVED THAT LINE. I am going to start using it myself, Megan!

To get the first group started, I asked them to write a mini-journal, explaining how they were feeling, why they were feeling that way, and what they want to do about it. I was impressed by what a student named Tina came up with: she wrote that she was feeling nervous about tomorrow's auditions for the school play. Then she added, "I always imagine the worst. Maybe I need to think about the best case instead." Great work, Tina! And it proves my point that writing can help us clarify our thoughts -- and plan our actions.

I used the same exercise with Miss Farrell's Grade 7 class. I loved how Sarah started her writing with the line, "Dear LIfe." (I think that would make a great book title, don't you?) And I loved how Giulianna began her writing: "Dear Dumb Diary." (Another great book title!) Later, I had the class write about a memory of when they were five years old. I was amazed by what this exercise led to. Two of the boys said their memories were so disturbing they preferred not to remember them. That's when I explained that WRITING TAKES COURAGE. I also explained that they might try FICTIONALIZING their experiences. They might try inventing a new character to go through what they did. My theory is that if you are able to remember something it's because your heart is telling you IT'S TIME TO WRITE ABOUT IT!

I finished the day with Miss Milea's Grade 8 class. A student named Alex told me he loves playing hockey. I told him publishers are super interested in books about team sports. Get started on your book, Alex! Alex said, "I have trouble writing three words." That led me to explain that I have trouble writing too. The trick is to KEEP WRITING PAST THE TROUBLE!!

I'll be back at Laval Junior Academy on December 21 for my last visit of the season. Hey, if you guys want to bring me your writing to look at, how about I eat my lunch in Miss Milea's classroom that day -- and we can talk about your writing?

Thanks to Miss Farrell and Miss Milea for having me. Thanks to the students for your energy -- and your great stories!

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"How Do I Know If I'm a Writer?" -- Day 2 at Laval Junior Academy

This afternoon, just as I was finishing my day of workshops at Laval Junior Academy, a student named Samantha asked me, "How do I know if I'm a writer?"

I thought I'd use Samantha's question for the title of today's blog entry -- and that I'd begin the entry with my answer.

Okay, here are some ways to know if you're a writer.

1. If you're like the two boys in today's pic (students in Miss Farrell's Grade Seven class) and you actually LIKE doing writing exercises. Or if you're like their fellow student Kiara, who had to remind me that I promised her class that we'd be doing a second writing exercise.

2. If you love words. Here's another example from Miss Farrell's class today. Just for fun, we each made a list of all the words we could think of that begin with the letter F (this was in honour of a student named Fred, who was absent for my first workshop last week). Well, even after we finished the exercise, the kids kept coming up with cool words. Kiara added "ferris wheel," to her list. TJ added "forgot" and "flute."

3. If you hate your first draft. I told all three groups that that's an excellent sign. If you think your first draft is perfect and you don't need to change a word, you are probably NOT a writer!

4. If you're snoopy. For example, if, like me, you go to restaurants with your friends and forget all about them -- because you are listening in to the conversation at THE NEXT TABLE.

5. If you enjoy doing research. (See Point 4. I consider listening in valuable research.)

6. If you're obsessed with asking the question, "What if?" For example: what if my cat attacks the cat sitter? What if I come home and find the cat sitter collapsed on the rug and my cat at the front door with a guilty look on his face? (This is an example of how asking the question 'What if?" can help you generate the plot of your story. It helps if you have a wacky cat like mine.)

My day really flew by at LJA. I think it's because the kids were fun, and I love their teachers Miss Farrell and Miss Milea. I'll share a few more highlights before I leave you to curl up on my couch with a good book (OH YEAH, I SHOULD HAVE ADDED THAT IF YOU LOVE TO READ IT COULD ALSO BE A SIGN THAT YOU'RE A WRITER!) and the wacky cat.

So, if you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know I'm obsessed with body language. Well today, I spotted body language I'd never seen before. A student named Massimo was chewing on the string inside his hoodie. I need to use that in a book.

Another highlight: a student named Ariana showed me a piece of descriptive writing that was so good it gave me goosebumps. (I only get goosebumps when I read something beautiful or hear a cool story.)

And a student named Alyssia told me her dad is snoopy. Hey Alyssia, tell him he might be a writer too!

I'll be back at LJA on Tuesday. I think it's safe to say you can expect another lively blog entry!!

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Kids Who Actually Enjoy Writing Exercises: Laval Junior Academy

There's something special going on at Laval Junior Academy. This is how I know: the kids I worked with today actually like doing writing exercises. Usually, even in my own classroom at Marianopolis College, the students groan when I tell them they're going to be doing in-class writing. But this morning, when I was working with Miss Milea's Grade Seven class, a student named John asked for MORE WRITING EXERCISES! (YAY!!!)

This was the first of four days of writing workshops I'll be doing at LJA. I'm also working with Miss Farrell's students. Miss Farrell and I go WAY back -- we met when I came to Mother Teresa High School (that was the former name of LJA) for a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project.

I spent the morning with Miss Milea's classes (one Grade Eight, then the Grade Seven group), and I finished the day with Miss Farrell's Grade Seven class. As usual, I have lots to tell. Often, I tell you funny stories about my school visits, but today, I have EDUCATIONAL STORIES for you. Here goes.

In the first class, two students were teasing each other. It all started when a guy named Nicholas called out, "Can you write a book about me?" Then a student named Jeffrey called back, "There isn't much to tell." Nicholas wasn't going to let the matter rest at that point, so he retaliated by shooting back, "Rapunzel!" (This was a referene to the fact that Jeffrey wears his hair kind of long.) Now here comes the teaching moment. Because I found the conversation funny, I started taking notes. I was asking Nicholas exactly what he'd said when another student named Lucas piped in: "There's already a book about Rapunzel." What's interesting is that when I investigated a little further, I learned that that wasn't exactly what Nicholas had said. (He'd just called out the name Rapunzel.) So what happened is that Lucas REWROTE the conversation. There's my first lesson for today: writers need to rewrite. (So do storytellers!!)

Second lesson came in the second class. And hey, it also has to do with rewriting. I asked the kids, "What do I do when I finish my first draft?" (I was looking for the answer "Rewrite.") But instead, a student named Luca (not to be confused with Lucas from the first class) answered. "Reread." Then a student named Alexia answered, "Add." Then I added "Subtract." And finally a student named Emanuele said, "Rewrite." But you know what? All those answers together really explain the rewriting process. First you have to REREAD. Then you may have to ADD material. You will certainly have to SUBTRACT material! And that process is called REWRITING.

Miss Farrell's students were a lively bunch, to say the least! I asked if any of them hate their first drafts. Sarab, Peter, Giulianna, Massimo, Trinity, Dante, Ryan and Ahmed all raised their hands. I told them that was great news. If you hate your first draft, you could be a real writer!!

I don't usually give homework when I do school visits, but since I'll be seeing Miss Farrell's students FOUR TIMES, I decided I could! So I've asked them to find an old person (I suggested starting with a grandparent, but told them that if they don't have a grandparent, they should just go ahead and borrow someone else's!) and find out their SECRET. (Secrets make great stories!) I suggested they ask two questions (after some chitchat, and a cup of tea -- warm drinks tend to make people tell us more stuff). My questions are: 1. What is the hardest thing you ever went through? and 2. How did you get through it?

I'll be back at LJA next week. Do you think Miss Farrell's class will uncover some secrets for me by then?

Thanks to my friends at LJHS for a great day. Thanks especially to Miss Milea and MIss Farrell for being wonderful -- and for sharing your kids with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

 

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Happy Start to the Week -- Lindsay Place High School

My week got off to a great start with this morning's visit to Lindsay Place High School. I was back at Lindsay Place, this time to do writing workshops with Miss Daigle's Grade 7 and 8 English classes.

In the first pic, I'm with (from left to right), Eden, Lauren and Kendra. More about them in a jiffy. First I want to tell you about Miss Daigle. I had the pleasure of teaching her in my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College -- and though I'm not allowed to have favourites, well, let's just say it sometimes happens! Miss Daigle was a wonderful, engaged student, so I am not surprised to see what a great teacher she has turned out to be! It was obvious that her students adore her, and are eager to make her happy. I also like that she knows her students' strengths -- such as who is a fabulous reader, but is a little reluctant to get into writing. Anyway, it's a special pleasure for someone like me who has been teaching for more than 30 years to see a young teacher so comfortable and good with her students. It makes me feel less sad about the fact that I'll be retiring from teaching one of these days.

Okay, on to the kids!

I'll start with a student named Scott who asked me, "Are you the author? Are you a good author?" Scott's questions cracked me up. Then, because Scott realized why I was laughing, he quickly added, "Of course you're good -- or you wouldn't be here!" Nice save, Scott, and thanks for the laugh!

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know I collect cool names for future book projects. Here are some names I collected today: Eden (see the photograph above), Jalen and Tmar.

Because we were discussing the importance of observation, I had one of the groups do an observation exercise. One student (she wanted to remain anonymous for this blog) wrote about a bracelet given to her by a friend. I love her use of detail and the emotion behind her observation: "It smells like mint and it's a bit dirty.... It reminds me of how strong I can be and that in the end, everything will be okay." Lovely, don't you agree?

As usual, I did a little observing myself. I made the Grade 7 group laugh when I pointed out that a student named Isaac looked like a teddybear. It turns out that lots of people say that about him. What's especially interesting (and story-worthy) is that Isaac knows quite a lot about some tough subjects. So he's an example of someone who probably isn't a teddybear through and through. In other words, Isaac, you should write your story!

Another person who should get writing ASAP is Afraa. We were talking about favourite pastimes (more good material for stories) and Afraa told me she loves to play soccer. Afraa wears a hijab, so I asked whether there are other girls who wear a hijab on her team. She told me she's the only one. Afraa, that has BOOK written all over it!!

When a student named Coby handed Miss Daigle something, I thought it was a secret note. (It turned out to be Coby's telephone.) But that gave me a chance to show the students how writers like me play a kind of game by asking the magic question WHAT IF? What if Coby was sharing information with Miss Daigle in a secret note? What if he had a stomach cramp and was asking permission to use the bathroom? See how the What if? game works? Authors use it all the time to advance their plots.

I'll be back at Lindsay Place on Friday for Part 2 of my writing workshops. Special thanks to the kids for being wonderful, to librarian Miss Dunning for being so welcoming and such an expert on all things related to books and reading, and to Miss Daigle for being the kind of teacher I most admire!

 

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Say Hello to My Lovely Writer Pal Karen Spafford-Fitz

I just got off a Facebook video call (I didn't even know that was possible!) with my writer pal Karen Spafford-Fitz. We've been meaning to catch up for a while, and I decided I really had to speak to her after recently reading her latest YA book, Saving Grad (James Lorimer and Co.).

Saving Grad is un-put-down-able. It's the story of Vienna and her mom who are on the run from the mom's violent boyfriend Duncan. It's a story about friendship and new beginnings. Because of what Vienna has witnessed, she decides to implement "a strict no-dating rule." As she explains, "After our experience with Duncan, that's just how it has to be."

I asked Karen what made her decide to write a book about domestic violence. Her answer took me by surprise. "Even when I was in elementary school," she told me, "I was aware that some kids didn't have a safe place to go home to like I did." As I told Karen, when I was a kid growing up, I had no sense at all that these kinds of problems existed.

In Saving Grad an outreach worker named Jerome helps Vienna and her mom. Jerome first meets them in the Edmonton Public Library. Karen got the inspiration for Jerome from a real life social worker who does outreach work in the library because it's a place where homeless people sometimes come to find shelter -- especially on cold Edmonton days.

I first met Karen a few years ago when one of her daughters was studying at McGill University. Over the years, we've had a few really fun coffee dates. I guess some people just click. We always compare notes about our latest writing projects. Karen filled me in about her upcoming YA novel Unity Club. It's scheduled for release in fall 2018 with Orca Books and it's about a girl with a strong social conscience. I like it already!

And because I'm always thinking of you, dear blog reader, I asked Karen if she had a writing tip that I could pass on. Here's what she came up with: "Read read read! Write write write!"

Hope wherever you are that you found a little time today to read and write. I'm about to have a quick dinner -- and then curl up with a new book (I'm reading Tortues à L'Infini by John Green -- it's the French translation of his latest YA novel, Turtles All the Way Down. Happy reading and writing to ALL OF US! Thanks, Karen, for another wonderful conversation. Hope the next one will be in person!

 

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Day 2 at Lindsay Place High School

How about I use the three photos at the top of this post to tell you about my visit to Lindsay Place High School today?

In the first pic, I'm with Angelica -- a student at the school who is VERY SPECIAL to me. (I try to avoid the word VERY -- ADVERB ALERT!! -- but it's necessary in Angelica's case). Three years ago, around this time of year, I was visiting Lindsay Place and I remarked to my friend, librarian Miss Dunning, how impressed I was with a student named Angelica. Miss Dunning said, "Oh, you mean Jelly!" That was the moment I came up with the name of the princess I'd been dreaming of writing about. And in the first pic, you see the real-life Angelica with the ARC (that stands for Advance Reading Copy) of my spring 2018 book Princess Angelica: Camp Catatrophe. It's the first in a four-book series that's called Jelly in a Jam!

How fun is that?

VERY (second adverb alert, but I couldn't help it).

In the second pic, I'm with Alexa, one of the students I worked with today (and yesterday). She's in Miss J's class. I figured out yesterday that Alexa is a born storyteller. Every time I brought up the subject of plot, Alexa could figure out what was going to happen next. Alexa, get writing! I gave the students an exercise today in which they had to imagine a character who was their total opposite. I asked Alexa's permission to let me quote part of what she wrote: "Some people say I have a horrible personality, but who cares since I'm gorgeous?" That led us to a little discussion about the wonderful, exciting challenge of writing about an unlikeable character (and ultimately, making them likeable).

My last pic has a funny, sweet story behind it. Don't you love the combination of funny and sweet? It's way better than pure funny or pure sweet if you ask me! In that pic, I'm with Miss Dunning, and two students (James and Jess) are coming over with two white roses. What's funny is that I made several wrong assumptions. First, I assumed both roses were for ME! Second, I assumed that either Miss Dunning or Miss J were behind the presentation. So I teased James and Jess about looking like they were forced to be on good behavior! Only guess what? It was their idea. There's more to the story. James and Jess had an ulterior motive! They were doing an assignment for Miss J's French class -- they had to do (and film) a random act of kindness. And guess what? Their random act of kindness was to give me and Miss Dunning each a rose. See what I meant about funny and sweet? James and Jess, if you're reading this -- thanks! (I'm afraid that in all the excitement, I may have forgotten my manners!) The rose is in a vase in my kitchen -- looking lovely.

I spent lunch working with two aspiring writers -- Kendra and Katana. Great to meet you, girls. Delighted to know that you caught the writing bug. The pair are writing an exciting book together and they are both characters in their own story.

I'll be back at Lindsay Place the second week of November for two more days of writing workshops.

In the mean time, happy reading, happy writing. Oh, a quick shout-out to Ryan, who insisted that he isn't into reading or writing. He told me, "My grandmother buys me a book every Christmas. I appreciate it because it's a gift. But I tell her, 'I don't know why you keep buying them!'" I had the students do a final writing exercise, and guess whose writing turned out to be stellar? I'm not saying his name because I don't want to ruin his reputation as a hater of reading and WRITING!

Thanks thanks to the students, and to the most wonderful, funny and kind Miss J, and to the always delightful and devoted Miss Dunning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy to be Back at School: Visit to Lindsay Place High School

I didn't realize how much I missed hanging out with teenagers until this morning when I did the first of a series of four author visits to Lindsay Place High School in Pointe-Claire.

I can't even tell you why I enjoy teenagers so much... it might have something to do with their openness and the fact that they are trying to figure out the world -- and themselves! (I'm still trying to do that myself at the age of fifty-seven!!)

I'm on sabbatical until January from my full-time teaching job at Marianopolis College, so let's just say I had a lot of energy to give to Miss J's Grade 10 and 11 English class. (Meet four of them in today's pic -- Kyle, Evan, James and Liam, who is stroking Evan's cheeks -- it's a long story.) My workshop was in the library and these four kids stole my heart by spending the break with me in the library rather than dashing out to do more exciting things!

I am going to get to spend FOUR HOURS with this gang. Heaven! It means I don't have to rush through my writing tips, I can get them to do a bunch of writing exercises, and I can get to know them a little (and STEAL THEM TO USE IN MY UPCOMING BOOKS!!)

How about I share a few highlights from this morning's visit? I loved when a student named Jo said about trouble (one of my favourite subjects): "You can pull a story out of it." Right on, Jo!! I also appreciated that at the end of my visit, Jo came to offer me a suggestion for the story I am working on (I told the students I had a problem to solve -- how to kill a character in a less gruesome way than I had been planning.)

Anastasia, whose arm was wrapped in a bandage, told us how she'd injured it during the summer while she was playing football with boys at sleepaway camp. I used Anastasia to demonstrate how authors need to be snoopy. So I asked her a lot of questions about the injury and made the interesting discovery that she waited for two months to get an X-ray. In-ter-esting!

My favourite moment of all was when the students were writing about a memory and Brayden asked me, "What if you don't want to write about what you remembered?" So I told him what I thought: that if you don't want to write about something it means YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY WRITE ABOUT IT.

I had another favourite moment on my drive home. I was listening to an interview and someone mentioned something American author Don DeLillo wrote. It was so wise I pulled over to the side of the road and scribbled it down (don't you like the word scribbled?). Also, it's perfect advice for Brayden and writers like him. Ready to be dazzled?

DeLillo wrote: "What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation."

How 'bout I end today's blog entry with that wondrous thought? See you tomorrow, Miss J's class. Looking forward to Part 2 of our adventures together! Special thanks to Miss J for sharing her students, and to librarian extraordinaire, Miss Dunning, for the invite -- and for the inspiration!

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Kids Who Love to Write Sometimes Grow Up to Become Authors

If you're a kid who loves to write, who invents stories for the fun of it, you just might become an author!

That's what happened to me, and also to the two other women in today's pic. That's Montreal playwright Colleen Curran in the flowery jacket, and my tall friend is picture book author Bonnie Farmer, who is also based in Montreal.

Bonnie is the brains behind a lovely little exhibit at Atwater Library. It's called Little Books and she's displayed the childhood works of several Montreal writers.

Colleen grew up in a writing household. Her dad was Gazette sports reporter Pat Curran. "He used to type his stories at our kitchen table. We grew up watching someone who wrote for an audience and got published. I thought everybody who wrote got published," Colleen told me last night at a reception to celebrate the exhibit. Colleen wrote a lot as a child, but she couldn't find any of her "little books." So instead she loaned the typewriter she used to write on when she was a kid!

Like me, Bonnie is a teacher. She contributed some stories she helped ESL students write in the 1990s. These days, Bonnie teaches kindergarten, where she observes that kids seem to want to make books. "Kids take bits of pieces of paper and draw on them, and write words, and glue and staple them into books," she told me.

As for me, I lent the library a "book" I wrote in Grade Five which I called "The Diary of Ooma Lella." It's the diary of a woman who dies during the Ice Age. In many ways, that book made me feel like a writer. I still remember how much my teacher, Mrs. Browman, liked it -- and I remember how she looked at me in a different way after she read my book! And guess what? I'm still friends with Mrs. Browman.

My mum died last January and I've been helping my dad organize the house and throw stuff out. I was very moved when I found "The Diary of Ooma Lella" in my mum's collection of favourite books.

Why am I telling you all this?

So you will know that every story you write, or your kid writes, is important.

Here's to teachers like Bonnie Farmer and Mrs. Browman, to parents who encourage their kids' creativity -- and to little books!

 

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Writers Eat Pizza -- and Give Writing Advice to Young Writers

I'm just back from the local pizza joint -- where I had pizza with a bunch of writers. And because I was thinking about you, dear blog reader, I brought some notepaper and made sure to get you top-of-the-line writing advice.

The guy in the bottom left corner was our visiting writer, and the reason we got together. He's Greg Neri, whose latest book is Tru and Nelle (Houghton Mifflin, 2016), a middle grade novel based on the real-life friendship between writers Truman Capote and Harper Lee.

Next to Greg is Mathew McCarney, who teaches Grades 7 and 8 English at Selwyn House School in Montreal, and who writes poetry. The woman behind Matthew is Carol-Ann Hoyte, a poet and librarian at Sewlyn House. And the woman behind Greg is my dear pal and fellow YA author Raquel Rivera.

Okay let's get to the advice.

I asked Greg first (after all he was the guest of honour). He said to tell you the following: "My advice is don't listen to anybody who gives you advice. Especially if they say, 'You should do this...'"

But then Greg said he actually did have some advice for young writers: "Give yourself permission to be lousy because young writers put too much pressure on themselves. Even if you know it's lousy when you're writing it, keep writing it. Let it out. You'll fix it later." (NOTE: Greg didn't use the word LOUSY. He used a better word, but can you believe it? I just got a message to this blog saying I had to remove the word. BOO!!!)

I LOVE THAT ADVICE and I HOPE YOU WON'T LISTEN TO GREG'S FIRST BIT OF ADVICE ABOUT NOT LISTENING TO ANYBODY'S ADVICE!!

I got even more advice for you guys. Matthew says he tells his students, "Everyone can tell a story. Now go ahead and tell yours." Raquel, whose latest novel is Show Mode (Orca Book Publishers) decided to pass on another writer's advice. She quoted Toronto poet Lillian Allen who tells aspiring writers: "You want to be a writer? Find an interest. Write about it." Raquel's latest interest (she has many, it's one of the reasons she's my pal) is samba reggae drumming. "It's my new religion," she told me.

Carol-Ann recently edited and anthologized Dear Tomato, a poetry collection. Her advice has more to do with reading than writing -- but you'll never become a writer if you're not a reader. Carol-Ann said to tell you, "There is a right book for everyone. You may just not have found it yet."

Speaking of books, dear blog reader, it's 9:32 PM in Montreal. I'm about to retire for the day -- with a book. Hope you've got something delicious to read too.

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In Which I Find This Mascot Sitting on a Bathroom Floor

You might be wondering who's that with me in today's pic? It's Scout, the CBC mascot I met earlier this afternoon at Arts Alive! -- an arts festival organized by ELAN (English Language Arts Network). I was there to do a multi-generational writing workshop. But first, I need to explain about Scout.

The festival is taking place all this weekend at St. John Fisher School in Pointe-Claire. The first thing I did when I walked into the building was ask where the bathroom was (you'll do that too when you're fifty-seven years old!!). The bathroom was immediately to my left. When I walked in, there was Scout sitting on the floor! I asked Scout whether she was all right... Scout told me, "I needed a break from the heat and all the kids!" I guess the bathroom was the only safe place for Scout to escape to!

Why am I telling you all this about Scout? Beause it isn't every day you walk into a school bathroom and find a mascot sitting on the tile floor. And that's how I opened this afternoon's writing workshop -- with the story of Scout. I told my workshop participants that writers need to be on the lookout for things that are WEIRD, FUNNY, and also SAD. Meeting Scout was weird and funny. And hey, I could make up the sad part. (That's the best thing about being a fiction writer ... we get to make stuff up!!) What if Scout (or more accurately the girl underneath the costume) saw her old frenemy from high school -- and she was worried that her frenemy might figure out that she had to spend today wearing a heavy, wooly costume for minimum wage pay? What if she ducked into the bathroom to avoid her frenemy? (See how much fun it is to make stuff up...)

There were only three participants at today's workshop. But because we were such a small group, we got a lot done and there was time to read from each other's work. There were two kids: Zahra, who's 10, and her brother Noah, who's 8. Zahra has been at several of my writing workshops. Soon, she'll be able to GIVE the workshops for me. The other participant was a grown-up named Mary.

I think it's safe to say we had a blast.

Here are some highlights from our ninety minutes together.

When I talked about how writers need to read, Zahra said, "I can't go to sleep without reading." Then Mary called out, "Me too, me too." I pointed out that Mary's use of the double "Me too" was a great example of fun language. Later, I was not surprised to discover that Mary writes great dialogue.

Another fun moment happened when I told the group, "Get ready to do a lot of writing." Noah looked up from his paper and said, "I can't spell though." I assured him that there are many fine writers who can't spell and that there's always spellcheck. For today, all he had to do was write write write. Noah also made us laugh when I asked the kids their ages. I wasn't going to ask Mary hers -- she's a grownup after all, and not all grown ups like to divulge this sort of information... but then Noah turned to Mary and asked, "How old are you?"

We did an exercise tht involved writing about a memory from when we were five years old. Zahra wrote about palying ringette. She included the line, "My toes hurt from rubbing on my ice skates for so long."I thought that was an excellent use of detail. Mary remembered being in her family's barn with a workhorse named King: "King munched on hay -- and I did too." I LOVE the picture of a five-year-old girl eating hay along with her horse. Don't you?

i was a little sorry when our ninety minutes were over. Zahra was going to her Arab lesson, Mary met up with her husband. And guess who I ran into in the school lobby? Scout.

Have a lovely weekend whenever you are. Hope you meet someone WEIRD and FUNNY too. And if something SAD happens, I wish you strength to deal with it... and don't forget to take notes. Because hey, that's what writers do!!!

Here's one more pic from the actual workshop today!

 

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Adventures in Writing a Board Book

Ever heard of a board book?

They're made of hard cardboard (hence the name board book) and they're aimed at children aged 0-3. Basically, they're for parents to read to their infants and toddlers -- and for babies to CHEW ON!!

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I write mostly for pre-teens and teens. So, imagine my surprise when, in May, an editor at my publisher Orca Books contacted me to ask if I was willing to write a board book. One hundred words on a topic that I can't disclose because it's still top-secret. Of course, I said YES.

You probably think one hundred words on some undisclosed topic is a snap, right?

But I knew it would be tough. That's because I have friends who write board books.

I started in May. As I often do, I worked on the floor in my little home office. I spread out notes all around me, and I started writing. I have to admit that when an unfortunate tele-marketer happened to phone, I SHOUTED AT HIM.

But I kept writing for two days straight. I thought my first draft was pretty excellent. Then I sent it to my friend and fellow author Rina Singh.

Rina, whose first book was a collection of poetry, made some great comments. When you only have one hundred words every word counts.

I worked some more and sent the manuscript off to Orca.

How hard can it be to write one hundred words?

Crazy hard. As in the hardest thing I have ever done. Harder than writing a 30,000 word manuscript!

I wrote -- are you ready? -- NINE drafts of the project.

Still, my friends at Orca didn't think I had it quite right. I suggested that maybe they should FIRE ME!! But they said, "No, we believe you are the person for this project. We believe that you will get it right."

And so, on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, sitting next to my daughter Alicia, I re-wrote the story for the TENTH time. Special thanks to Alicia, for her input and suggestions -- and for putting up with me while I read the story over and over and over again. Even our seat mate, a man with mutton chop sideburns (he's another story altogether!!) was forced to hear my WIP (that stands for work-in-progress).

And guess what? That tenth draft of my first board book?

It worked. You'll be able to read it to a baby in spring 2018.

The moral of today's blog entry: you can do it even if it's hard. Even if it feels IMPOSSIBLE. All you need to do is fly to Europe -- and never ever EVER give up.

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Book Launch at St. Monica School!!

It's been an exciting morning here in NDG. I am just home from a book launch at St. Monica School, which happens to be conveniently located around the corner from my house!

We were celebrating the launch of this year's edition of Quebec Roots -- it's a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project in which students from across the province work with a team of authors and photographers to contribute a chapter to the book.

Photographer Thomas Kneubuhler and I were lucky that we got to work with Mr. Trister's Grade Five class at St. Monica's. (That's Mr. Trister in the back corner of the first pic.) Thomas is away in Switzerland on a work assignment, so I had to talk enough for two people (not a problem for me!!).

As you can imagine, the kids were pretty psyched to see their words and images published in a real book! A student named Joanne told me, "I got inside a published book and I want to do more!" And a student named Mel made me happy when he said he might keep a journal this summer: "I might write about my vacation. We might go to Auberge Lac Taureau and there's a beautiful beach there."

And because I'm me, I took a few minutes to pick the students' brains about a book project I'm working on. I need one of my characters to be hooked on video games -- and the kids told me the latest, best video games: 2K17 and Battlefield 1. Thanks, guys!

This winter, I also travelled to Salluit in Nunavik, to work with students at Ikusik School. The Ikusik kids contributed two wonderful chapters to this year's Quebec Roots. In all, there are seven chapters. I can't wait to read them all. I hope you will too!!

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Special Morning at LCCHS

So what if I took a bridge I didn't have to and got totally lost -- and had to put in an emergency SOS phonecall -- on my way to Lasalle Community Comprehensive High School this morning? It was ALL WORTH IT because the two groups of students I worked with ... well... they made me happy! (Hopefully I taught them some stuff too!)

I started the morning with Miss Di Criscio's Grade Seven class. When I asked if any of them tend to ask themselves what I call the "magic question": "What if?" Abigail answered, "I ask 'What if?' all day every day!" Way to go, Abigail! You sound like a writer! You know how I'm always on the hunt for cool names to use for future characters in my books? Well, one of the Grade Seven students was named Blade. When I asked him how his parents came up with that name, he told me, "They were into medieval stuff." Très cool, Blade. (I also met a student named Karma -- but she was in my second group. Love her name too.)

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know how I love observing small, interesting things. I noticed that a student named Fardin is detail-oriented. When I asked the students to write something down, Fardin asked, "Is there a comma?" I think it would be fun to use a character like Fardin in a story, don't you? I also noticed that a student named Alyssa was kind -- this is because, when I mentioned that my mom died four months ago, Alyssa looked at me and said, "Sorry for your loss."

During my break, a talented Grade Ten student named Alice dropped by the library to show me some poetry she's been working on as part of a project called Leave Out Violence. I gave Alice a few tips for tightening up her poems -- such as to reduce the number of words whenever possible, and to avoid rhyme when it sounds forced. I also asked Alice for permission to share one of her lines that I liked most. It comes from a poem called "Funerals": "Funerals aren't for the living/ They're for the dead." What I like about these lines is that they are clear, concise and powerful. Keep writing, Alice!

I ended my morning with students in the school's Phoenix program, an alternative program that lets them complete their Sec. IV and V classes. (You can see a few of them in today's pic.) These kids have stories! When they first sat down in the library, I noticed that a student named Sabrina was sitting alone. When I mentioned this, another student -- Austin -- got up from his table and went to sit with her. I loved that. Also, it would make a great scene in a book. Thanks for the inspiration, Sabrina and Austin.

I gave both groups of students a short writing exercise. A student named Kyle said I could go ahead and quote my favourite line from what he wrote. Here goes: "I am addicted to the feeling of helping others." That line really touched my heart. Thanks, Kyle, for letting me share it here.

Also, I often say the same things when I do school visits, so it was exciting that today I came up with a new line -- especially for the Phoenix kids. I told them, "Cash in on your misery and write about it!" What do you think of that wisdom? (I like it a lot!)

Special thanks to my friend, librarian Miss Lumi, for inviting me to LCCHS today -- and for helping me find my way from the Mercier Bridge. (That's Miss Lumi next to me in today's pic.) Thanks to the students for being wonderful. Let's just say -- I needed you today!

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Writing Workshop for Seniors (and Two Imposters!) at the Blue Met Festival

Yesterday afternoon, I did a workshop called "Finding the Story You Need to Tell" at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. The workshop was meant to be for seniors -- but two young women turned up to join us. All I can say is we had a magical afternoon together. The workshop was 2-1/2 hours long, but I never once checked my watch!

I tried to bit of everything. That means some of my usual writing tips (the same ones I pass on to high school students), as well as writing exercises. I made sure to do exercises that were quick and fun, as well as a couple that were more difficult and required a little more "giving."

When the workshop started, I asked everyone to introduce themselves. Carol made us laugh when she told us her reason for coming to the workshop: "I'm avoiding my income taxes!" Sylvia explained that she's been writing since she was a little girl: "I had to write books for my parents for birthdays and at Christmas." It sounds to me like you had great parents, Sylvia! Several of the participants were retired teachers. One of them, Nigel, who also works as a translator, said he needs to follow the same advice he used to give to his students at Champlain College when they were avoiding their writing assignments: "Trip yourself up! Walk backwards -- go blind!" Cheryl, another retired teacher, said that at this stage in her life, she finally has time to write. "When I was working," Cheryl said, "I was too exhausted to do all the things I wanted to do."

I must say I never felt for a moment like I was working. At the end of the workshop, Cheryl (the income tax-avoider!) told me: "I've got two short stories blooming as a result of your exercises. They've been rattling around."

Here's to blooming, here's to rattling -- here's to writers of all ages and stages in their careers!

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Day 4 at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival: Westmount Library

It's me again! Reporting in from Day 4 of this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Don't you love today's pic? Mett Melea (on the left) and Kashuf (on the right). I was at the Westmount Library, doing a writing workshop for their Grade 8 class at Westmount High, when I spotted these two students in perfect "concentrating" position. So of course, I whipped out my cellphone and took a pic that I could post here for all the world to see.

I also explained to the class that I love love love the old writing rule, "Show; don't tell." I could TELL you that the girls were concentrating. But it's way better to SHOW you that they were resting their chins on their hands, taking notes and looking right at me.

More exciting news: the students' teacher, Miss Tevel, was one of MY students at Marianopolis College. Makes me think I must do a good job!!!

I love learning stuff about kids, and of course, I write everything down for possible future use in a story. I loved that a student named Mohammed was keeping track of which number point I was on. "Maybe I want to be an engineer," Mohammed told me. Sorry, by the way, for hopping around between points, Mohammed. As you can guess, I would have made a terrible engineer!

I was also kind of fascinated by a student named Josh. (I told the class that if I'd had a son instead of a daughter, his name would have been Josh.) Anyway, Josh looked a little sluggish (leaning way back in his chair, not taking notes), but also quite smart (could have been on account of his glasses). When I asked him to write a list of ten things he hated, I discovered that Josh is a creative thinker. Now go use that talent, Josh!

The other students wrote about a memory connected to bullying. I absolutely loved Nikitas's first line: "It was 3:06 dot on." The "dot on" part really catches my attention. Cyrus wrote about how his older brother "hit me with a belt as a joke" -- that's powerful material, Cyrus. And Hang wrote something really really beautiful that I think she should develop into a book. She described her memory of being in Grade 4 in China: "It was HELL. There was a rumour going around about the fact that I'm Japanese." When I asked Hang more about the rumour, I learned something super interesting -- that it was only afterwards that Hang learned that she is actually part Japanese. Whoo! How interesting! I wish I could write a book about Hang's experience -- only problem is that Hang would do a way better job since she lived it. Hang, start writing!

I had another great morning at the festival. Thanks to my friend, Westmount Library's children's librarian Wendy Wayling, for hosting me; thanks to Miss Tevel; to the other adults who were present; and special thanks to the kids. I had a blast with you guys this morning. Now, go write and read!!

 

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Day 3: Blue Metropolis Literary Festival: Mini-Workshop, Max-Pleasure

No kids in today's pic -- just me at the Montreal Children's Hospital. I was there this morning to do a mini-workshop. I had four participants, all teens who are being treated at the hospital. But as I explained in the title of today's blog entry, I had maximum-pleasure. What a treat to work so closely with a small, talented group!

As usual, I did my usual: writing tips, stories. I warned the kids beforehand that they would probably need a long nap after they met me! One of them, who has had trouble sleeping lately, thought that was great news! Who knew that I could have a medicinal effect?!!

When I talked about the importance of making writing a habit, "S" (I'm not using any real names in today's blog entry) said that she writes every day. "Farrell" said, "I text my friends rants or else I text them about my dreams." So S and Farrell are already cultivating the habits that could turn them into professional writers. Make sure you back up all those texts, Farrell!

Here's a funny snippet of a mini-conversation we had during today's mini-workshop:

S: Can I ask you something?

Me: You can ask me anything.

S: That's good to know.

That line, "That's good to know" cracked me up. What do you say, S, should one of us use it for a book title: "That's Good to Know"? If I use it, I will credit you!

There was a time for a writing exercise! Yay! I asked the kids to write about a moment of change in their lives. Here's how "Luna" started her piece: "Her eyes examined me. Up and down, up and down." I have to admit I was a little JEALOUS when I read that!! That's because I usually hate the first line I write when I am getting started. But Luna's first line was PERFECT.

And here's a little tidbit to wrap up today's blog entry. If you know me, you know I love to tell the story of the monkey man charm I wear around my neck. I asked the kids if they wanted to touch the charm. "Veronica" didn't want to touch it. In fact, I noticed her giving me a weird look (I suppose it is a little weird if some energetic lady with curly hair invites you to touch her monkey man charm!). But guess what? When I finished telling the story of the charm, Veronica wanted to touch it! That made me happy in a way that is hard to describe here.

So, thanks to Blue Met for sending me to work with this lovely group today. S, Farrell, Luna and Veronica -- keep writing. I feel like the luckiest woman in all Montreal today that I got to work with you!

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Day 2 at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival: Jewish Public Library

I'm still flying from my second morning at this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Today, I was at the Jewish Public Library working with Miss Horvath's Grade Seven students (there were some Grade Six-ers too) at Hebrew Academy. If I may say so myself, I got a lot done in my one-hour presentation -- and there was even time for writing -- and lively discussion!

I started with my usual writing tips, and then I turned the subject to stories about bullying and my new book, Bullies Rule. I explained how most stories about bullying focus on the victim, and how I think it'd be interesting to read more stories from the bully's point of view and also from the bystander's point of view. During the short writing exercise I did with the students, I was impressed with a student named Miriam's opening line: "I was a bully a few years ago because I was scared to be bullied." The first thing I did (well, okay, the first thing I did was tell Miriam I liked her work), but then the next thing I did was suggest she leave out the words "a few years ago." So we tried the line out this way: "I was a bully because I was scared to be bullied." Don't you agree that it reads even more powerfully this way? (I follow the rule that the fewest possible words are usually best.)

Because I am always HUNTING for stories and a SNOOPY person by nature, I noticed that a student named Yehuda was wearing a rather unattractive cast -- the thing that made it unattractive was that it was on his left forearm and also two of his fingers. Well, it was a good thing I asked Yehuda about the cast because he ended up telling me a story that gave me goosebumps (goosebumps happen when I hear a story I might end up writing about!!). It turned out Yehuda was playing basketball with Baruch (a boy sitting two seats over from Yehuda this morning) and Baruch accidentally broke Yehuda's finger. "Did you cry?" I asked Yehuda. I got the goosebumps when he answered, "Yes." I also asked Baruch how he felt about what had happened and whether he had tried to make it up to Yehuda. "I called him afterwards. My dad thought I should buy him something." I smell a story there. Do you?

When we were talking about re-writing, a student named Ben said something I considered wise: "It's not like you can expect it to be perfect. It's not like you can write a book and it has no mistakes." I hear you, Ben! For me, writing is all about re-writing, and then re-writing some more. Followed by more re-writing!

At the end of my session, I told the students about the monkey man charm I wear around my neck -- and I told them how the story formed the basis for what will be my first picture book. A student named Gavi had a great question, "Is that how you wrote it?" -- Imust say that question impressed me a lot. So I explained that no, I had to inject a lot of imagination into the real story to turn it into something that would appeal to kids today. And that I also relied on my memory of a shocking thing that happened during a giant storm when I was a kid. Memory, I told the students, is a big part of a writer's toolbox.

You can probably tell that I had a great time with the kids at the Jewish Public Library today. In fact, I was having so much fun that I forgot to get someone to snap a pic. Luckily, a few students came back to chat with me while I was packing my book bag! In today's pic, you can see those girls, as well as their teacher, Miss Horvath, who is standing between them. The JPL's children's librarian Talya Pardo is at the far left. And next to her is my surprise visitor -- the library's director of  financial resource development, my former student Alyson Lozoff!

I'll be back at the festival every day this week. Stay tuned for more updates!

 

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Day 1 at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival: Kirkland Library

It's Day 1 of this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. I kicked off the week with a super-fun visit to the Kirkland Library where I worked with about 60 Grade Five students from Kuper Academy.

I bet you're wondering why so many of them have their hands raised in today's pic! It's because I asked them, "How many of you write something and immediately hate it?" When so many kids raised their hands, I told them, "Don't move. I need to take a pic of you guys!" and then I told them, "If you feel dissatisfied with your first drafts, it's a sign that you could be REAL WRITERS!" Or as a student named Kayleigh explained, "A first draft is horrible." Exactly, Kayleigh! And what distinguishes amateur writers from professionals is that we re-write and re-write, and re-write all over again -- until, finally, we start to like our own work!

I was at the library to do a workshop about my latest book, Bullies Rule. I also made time to give the kids some basic book-writing tips. And we did an exercise in our heads (I explained that that's where all writing starts: in our imaginations). I asked the students to recall a memory of being bullied/being a bully/ or having been a witness to bullying. I explained that most stories about bullying focus on the victims, and I challenged the students to try, instead, to write a story from a bully's point of view. (That's what I did in Bullies Rule.)

As usual, I collected cool names for possible inclusion in my future books. My favourites today were Gage, Spiro, Aniruddha, Cinar and Ilgaz (Cinar and Ilgaz happen to be twins). I also learned cool stuff, such as that Kayleigh is a TRIPLET (Write about it, Kayleigh!!), and that, like me, a student named Ella wears a necklace that is precious to her, and which is connected to the Holocaust (Write about it, Ella!).

I'll end today's blog entry with something a student named Lauren told me -- it's actually something Lauren's older sister told her: "Books make you homesick for a place you've never been." Don't you just love that line?

Thanks to Blue Met for sending me to the Kirkland Library to work with the kids from Kuper. Thanks to teachers Madame Assya (my former student!!!) and Miss G for sharing their classes with me. And thanks to the universe for a happy start to this busy week. Stay tuned for lots of blog entries this week -- direct from the Blue Met Literary Festival!

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Great Start to the Week at Laurentian Regional High School

My week got off to a great start with my visit today to Laurentian Regional High School in Lachute. That's me in the pic with a lovely student named Chris who kept me company -- and discussed writing and photography -- during my lunch break. More about Chris later....

I worked with two groups: first, Miss Matthews's grade nines, then Miss Welden's grade sevens. You know how I  LOVE TROUBLE? (Well in a story, anyhow!!) These kids were perfect -- they caused no trouble at all. That meant I got to cover a lot of writing tips and also tell some stories.  As Louis, one of Miss Welden's students, said, "There's always a story." I couldn't agree with you more, Louis.

Both classes had amazing questions which they'd prepared in advance. One of Miss Matthew's students, Cassidy, asked, "Do you feel a personal connection to your characters?" When I said yes, Cassidy laughed. That's when I knew she was a writer too. Later, when we chatted, Cassidy told me she is working on a project that has over 80 characters. I told Cassidy that I'm reading a novel I really love, Men Walking on Water by Emily Schultz, and it's also what I described as an "ensemble piece" with many characters, all of them fascinating!

Kalina asked, "When you get an idea, do you write about it right away or do you think about it?" Instead of answering, I asked Kalina (who had only known me for about an hour) to guess my answer. She said, "I bet you write about it right away." That was my turn to laugh. Kalina was right. I figure things out by writing about them, though I certainly know other writers who mull a lot before they start typing. I guess I mull at the keyboard.

I explained to both groups that it's important to do research and ask lots of questions. I also told both groups about the monkey man charm I wear around my neck. So I was super-impressed when Mathys, one of Miss Welden's students, asked about the other necklace I wear. Because I like to be as honest as possible at all times, I told the students something I have never told any other kids -- that I had the necklace made after my second marriage broke up. It was a way to use the diamond that I used to wear on my left hand. Mathys, who is SUPER SMART, then asked me, "Is it like you moved on -- but you don't forget the past?" Mathys, I couldn't have put it better myself. Thanks for teaching me that!!

I'll end today's blog entry with a word or two about Chris, who also goes by the nickname Red (because he loves red foxes). Chris is a talented photographer. I know because he showed me some of his nature pics and they are really remarkable. He turned out to be FULL OF STORIES (no wonder I enjoyed his company so much). When Chris was 14, he worked as a baker at the local Tim Horton's. Here's how he described it: "It was hell." These days, Chris says he has a problem with motivation. "I haven't done homework for years, but I'm still passing everything." So Chris, and any other blog readers with a similar approach to homework, here's what I have to tell you: GET SERIOUS, YOU'RE SMART AND TALENTED -- NOW GO USE THOSE GIFTS. AND DO YOUR DANGED HOMEWORK!!

Many thanks to librarian Megan Bryan for inviting me to Laurentian Regional today. And to Miss Matthews and Miss Welden for sharing your wonderful kids. And to the kids for being wonderful.

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Another Special Morning at Mackay Center School

I was back at Mackay Centre School this morning for a second series of writing workshops. If you don't live in Montreal, you probably don't know what a special place Mackay is -- many of the students there have motor, speech or sensoral difficulties. Yet despite those challenges, the mood in the school is totally upbeat. As librarian Anne o'Connor told me this morning, "I love the spirit of the kids -- there's a joy here."

In today's pic, I am actually working with a group of visually impaired students who go to Philip E. Layton School -- located inside Mackay Centre. I was able to get through a lot of my writing tips with this bright gang of kids. One boy (no names in today's blog) had lots of interesting questions, such as, "Are you allergic to cats?" and "Are you right-handed or left-handed?" Hey, maybe I should include a character in my next book who asks cool questions! (Yes, I'm allergic to cats and I'm right-handed.)

I started my day with two kindergarten classes. These kids were so cute and bright, I wished I could take them all home! I was inventing a story for the kids (to demonstrate the need for TROUBLE to make a story move forward) and I came up with something about running into traffic. One student raised her hand because she wanted to add to my story: "You'd be like a pancake!" she said. I thought that was a great twist -- and also a great way of putting it ("You'd be like a pancake" is a simile which sounds a lot better than "You'd be flattened.")

I asked the kindergarteners to come up with their own examples of trouble -- and they did a gret job. One girl told me, "I didn't listen to my parents." Another student remembered when he "lost an airplane in the park."

I also worked with a group of deaf students. Thanks so much to their teacher, Glenna, for signing so that the kids could follow everything I was saying. If you know me, I'm a quick talker, so I made Glenna work hard! When I told the students that first drafts are usually junk, one of them nodded like crazy. I loved that -- because it shows he understands that the difference between junky writing and good writing is REWRITING!! When we were discussing trouble, two students shared memories about getting lost -- one on a train, and another in a clothing store. Great use of details, you two!

To be honest, I'm a little sorry that my visits to Mackay are over. I feel super inspired by the young people I met at Mackay this week. You know, of course, that you guys have great stories to tell and to share with the world. Readers need to learn about the kinds of challenges you face. The world can learn a lot about humour and resilience and kindness from you. SO GET WRITING!

Thanks to my friends at Mackay (and Philip E. Layton) for having me at your school(s). Thanks, especially, to my friend Sebastian Piquette and to librarian Anne O'Connor. And to the kids, THANKS FOR BEING AMAZING. Signed, Grateful Author

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"Oh Happy Day" -- Visit to Mackay Center School

I'm an awful singer, but when I'm in a really good mood, I sometimes catch myself singing the song, "Oh Happy Day." That's what I did on my way home this morning from Mackay Centre School, a school where many of the students have motor, speech or sensorial difficulties. I was there to do writing workshops with big kids and little kids -- and they all have giant hearts!

I did mini writing workshops with kids in pre-k, and more complex workshops with kids in grades one through six. I jotted down some of the highlights of my visit to share with you here. In the pic below, I am working with grades three and fours. Thanks to my lovely niece, Erica Lighter, who works at the school and who popped in to attend my workshop -- and act as official photographer!

The library where I did my presentations has a carpet with all the Canadian provinces on it. A student named Hebe sat down on top of British Columbia and explained, "it's because my aunt lives there." When I told the kids that I keep a daily journal, a student named Junior said, "I have a comment book that I'm making." I like the sounds of that, don't you? Maybe I should start calling my journal a "comment book" instead!

I was impressed that a Grade One, Nevina, had already checked out my website. I also laughed when, after I told Nevina's class that I'd published 21 books, Nevina called out, "No way, Jose!!" And later, when I was making up a story for the class (I was demonstrating how asking the question "What if?" can help move a story's plot forward), I invented a story about scraping my knee on the way to the school this morning. "What could happen next?" I asked the kids. Nevina really touched my heart when she said, "Your mom could wash you off."

A student named Thelma impressed me with her cool outfit -- plaid shirt, hot pink pants, and orange socks. Maybe I'll use a girl dressed like Thelma in one of my next books. And I also laughed when a student named Bishal wanted to know, "Do you write in small letters or big letters?" I told Bishal I write in ALL letters!!

I had the pre-k class just after recess. Simone, one of the pre-k kids saw me and remarked, "Oh there's someone new." Simone also told me that she keeps "a yellow journal." Wow, that's impressive for a pre-k student!

I ended my visit to Mackay today with the grades five and six students. They were super smart and focused. When I told them that I learned boxing in order to research my novel Straight Punch, a student named Asher called out, "I'm scared of you right now." Later, when the students did a writing exercise, Asher described the first time he came to Mackay. He wrote, "It smelled like new carpet." Can't you just smell it?

There was a tall, confident-looking young man sitting at the back of the room. His name is Androel. The funny thing that happened with Androel is that I thought he was the principal -- and not a student!

So, I hope this blog entry gives you an idea of why I had such a happy day at Mackay. Many of the students at this school face major challenges -- but they're smart and funny and COURAGEOUS (in my view, courage is the most important gift of all). So thanks to wonderful teacher Sebastian Piquette for the invite, thanks to all the teachers for sharing your students with me, and thanks to the kids for being AMAZING. I'll be back at Mackay on Friday for another morning of writing workshops. LUCKY MOI!!

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"Interesting" Day at Joliette High School

I'm just home from an interesting day at Joliette High School, where I worked with Miss Castiglione's two grade seven classes. You have probably figured out that when a person uses the word "interesting," there must be a story behind it! And there is! The first class I worked with this morning had some students who were a little disinterested. When I suggested that one of them might be happier if he left the classroom, he decided to leave. (To be honest, I didn't really want him to go... I thought that my comment would get him to participate more fully... but oh well, life doesn't always go according to plan, does it?)

That's Miss C in the striped sweater in today's pic. The other teacher is Miss Beddia, who teaches Grades 10 and 11 English and WHO WAS MY STUDENT AT MARIANOPOLIS COLLEGE!! (She came to sit on for part of my afternoon session.)

The student in the pic was also in this morning's group -- and he was wonderful. His name is Mathieu, but he also responds to the name Mathew. Which led us to discuss the possibility of a character who has an English and French name, and whose hair is dyed half-blond! Good idea, don't you agree?

The afternoon group was A PIECE OF CAKE. Sorry, I know tht's a cliché, but hey I LOVE CAKE. The kids were super. We had a good laugh when I asked a guy what his name was and he took a minute to consider the answer. Alice, the student sitting in front of him, answered for him: "His name's Selvin," she told me. I noticed a student named Chad had stabbed his eraser with his pencil. That led another student, Sophia, to say, "Pencil, it's like, 'Die Eraser!'" I suggested to Sophia that that might make a great title for a poem.

There was even time for a short exercise with the second group. Arabell (great name for a character!!) wrote about her memory of losing a tooth in kindergarten breakfast club: "the teacher gave me a little red tooth-shaped box.... I ate pancakes." Nice details, Arabell! Roxan remembered the "dress up chest" in her kindergarten classroom. Don't you agree that the word "chest" there really takes us to the scene?

Many thanks to Miss Ruby for the invitation to return to Joliette High School and to Miss C for sharing your students with me today. Yes, there were some challenging moments, but all in all, I had a great day -- and wouldn't have it any other way!

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Back at William Latter School!

I was back today at William Latter School in Chambly, working with two more Grades Five and Six classes. In today's pic, I am with a lovely young man named Kyler, who, I think it's safe to say, is my biggest fan in Chambly. Until his teacher, Miss Kozub, suggested he read my Orca Currents title, Junkyard Dog, Kyler says he wasn't much of a reader. Now Kyler's read three of my books -- and I left him another one to get busy with (he promised to pass it on to school library when he's done). I asked Kyler to tell me why he likes Orca's Currents series, and he told me: "The biggest reason why I actually like them is because someone my age can really relate." YAY!!

So, today I worked with Miss Kozub's and Miss Kim's groups. I must say the mood in the two classrooms was very different -- Miss Kozub's students were hardworking and serious; Miss Kim's had a zillion questions for me -- and also a lot of stories that they wanted to share!

I thought I'd use today's blog entry to share some of the highlights of my day at William Latter. In Miss Kozub's class, I OBSERVED (writers need to do a lot of observation) a student named Samantha. What I noticed about her was how her blonde hair, which was tied back in a ponytail, shone in the morning sunshine, and looked like a HALO. When I asked Samantha whether she was angelic, Samantha fluttered her hand in the air -- as if to say, "so so!" I'm thinking it would be fun to open a novel with an angelic-looking girl who is not 100 per cent angelic!!

I told both classes how writers need to ask WHAT IF? in order to move their stories forward. One of Miss Kozub's students, Elyse, came up with an amazing WHAT IF? We were talking about how the Nazis hated Jews, Roma, those who were disabled, as well as those who were gay, and Elyse wondered out loud, "What if one of the Nazis was gay?" Amazing story idea, Elyse!

I also talked about how writers need to be SNOOPY. So when I came back from recess and found one of Miss Kozub's students, Carl-Eric, reading my notes, I admired him for his SNOOPINESS. Good work, Carl-Eric!

Miss Kim's students had some great ideas for themes they might explore in stories. Christopher suggested writing about jealousy; Jayden came up with the theme of being left out. Miss Lyne, a French teacher who was with Miss Kim's kids for one period, had a good question for me. She wanted to know, "DId any of your books ever get rejected?" I told her the answer was YES and I thanked her for asking me the question. Four or five of my manuscripts were rejected before I made my first book sale. I explained to the class that the only reason I got to be a published author is that I NEVER GAVE UP. I told the kids that whatever they dream of doing, they should go for it, and they should expect obstacles along the way -- but that they mustn't give up. Ever!

So, many thanks to my friends at William Latter for having me back at your school. I feel inspired by the time I spent with you guys. Thanks to the teachers for sharing your classes with me; and thanks to the students for being wonderful!!!

 

 

 

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Great Start to the Week -- Visit to William Latter School

We've had 30 centimeters of snow in the Montreal area -- so I was a little nervous about driving out to Chambly this morning to do the first of two visits at William Latter School. But I needn't have worried. The drive went well, and the students were WONDERFUL.

I worked with two groups of Grades Five and Six students. I started the day with Genevieve's class. When I asked them whether they are the kinds of people who ask themselves WHAT IF? a lot, I was astounded by the answer. Twenty of the twenty-two students, as well as Genevieve, are all WHAT IF? wonderers. For me, that means they are potential writers. It's by asking myself the question, "What if?" that I'm able to advance the plot in my stories.

When I asked the students why it's a good idea to interview old people, a student named Kyra shot her hand up into the air. "It's because," she said, "they're more old and they know more things!" Exactly, Kyra!

I also talked about the Holocaust and my historical novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp. We talked about how we need to make sure that every single person on our planet is treated equally -- and how it is more important than ever to stand up for each other. I like to think that reading and writing stories are a way for us to build connections with each other.

My next stop was Daisy's class. There I met a smiling student named Riley. When I commented on his smile, his classmates called out, "We call him 'Smiley Riley.'" Now don't you think that would make a great book title? I also met a student named Graham, who explained that his friends call him, "Graham Crackers." Maybe there should be a book called, "The Adventures of Smiley Riley and Graham Crackers."

Because I had both groups for two hours, there was time for writing exercises. (Yay! I love writing exercises. There's nothing that pleases me more than to see pens flying on the page!!) I thought I'd end today's blog entry with some of my favourite lines from the students' work. Here's how Antonia described the voice of someone she dislikes: "her voice is like someone strangling a rat." Yikes -- can't you just hear it? A student named Elorie started her piece about an imaginary character by writing, "My name is Maude and I am famous, well, I was." I definitely want to find out what happened to Maude!

For last period, I was back with Genevieve's students. There, a student named Lana wrote about her memory of the first day of school: "No one knew me and I didn't know anyone." I find that line hauntingly beautiful! And a student named Tiffany wrote about a girl who was bullied; the bullies called her "Creepy no life girl." Now that's a book title if I ever heard one. Tiffany, if you don't write that book, I may have to steal your title!!

I'll be back at William Latter to work with two more groups of students next Monday. I'm crossing my fingers that they'll be as bright and creative as the students I met today. And for anyone who wants to pop by and show me their writing, I'll bring my lunch and eat it in Genevieve's classroom. Okay, off I go to my own students at Marianopolis College -- have a good week, dear blog readers!

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Reporting Back from Ikusik School in Salluit, Nunavik!!

I'm just just home from an AMAZING, dare I say LIFE-CHANGING trip to Salluit, where I worked with two groups of students at Ikusik School. Salluit is the second northernmost community in the province of Quebec. I was there thanks to an amazing Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Quebec Roots. The seven classes participating in Quebec Roots this year will each be contributing a chapter to a book that will be published at the end of the school year. The kids are writing and taking photographs on a subject linked to the theme of community. My friend, photographer Monique Dykstra (when we work together, we are known as "The Moniques") will head to Salluit in two weeks to work with the same students. Usually, "The Moniques" travel as a pair, but this time we divided up the trips. And though I missed her company, it was great to have nearly two full school days to work with the students. AND SOME OF THEM EVEN TURNED UP AFTER SCHOOL ON TUESDAY TO DO A LITTLE MORE WRITING. YAY!!!!

Even without Monique, I wasn't working alone. Kativik School Board English consultant Crystal Speedie was there too, providing wisdom and guidance. And so was teacher Christopher Kim, a lovely, kind guy who shared his students with us. We were also accompanied by two reporters: Christopher Curtis of the Montreal Gazette, and Marika Wheeler of the CBC. In today's pic, the YOUNG woman working with the students isn't me, it's Marika. She was there to interview the students about Quebec Roots, but I asked if Marika could take a few minutes to share her advice about interviewing. So I took today's pic, while she was talking to them. She reminded students that when they are interviewing members of their community, it's better not to ask "close-ended" questions -- meaning questions that get a "yes" or "no" answer. Instead, she recommended "open-ended" questions.

My main goal this week was to help the students choose topics for the chapters they will be contributing to this year's edition of Quebec Roots. The younger students came up with the brilliant idea of writing about "Community and Sharing." Credit here goes to a student named Nathan, who personally generated a whole list of ideas -- then the kids voted since the thinking behind Quebec Roots is that we really want kids to feel invested in their chapters. The timing could not have been better for this subject -- that's because on Monday, there was a community feast to mark the arrival of two young men who are doing a walking journey in Nunavik to raise awareness about abuse of all kinds. Nearly everyone in town turned out for the feast -- and everyone brought food and shared it.

The older kids decided to write about the topic of "Purple Dope" -- a term that refers to marijuana. Not all of the kids in the older group are marijuana users, but even the ones who aren't voted for the topic, saying they wanted to learn more abou it. At first, I have to admit that I was slightly worried about the choice of topic, but once the writing started to happen, I really felt like it was an important topic that needs discussing. Wait till you read our chapter! I thought I'd give you a sneak preview here today -- the following passage comes from a group poem the kids wrote about an example of the pain that leads to drug use in their community: "The pain also comes/ When loved ones die/ Or when we have alcoholic parents/ It's horrible./ They beat each other up./ Then both of them get sent to jail./ And there's no one to look after us."

Not an easy passage to read, I know, but an important, beautiful one. So here I am, back at my desk in Montreal, but I must say that my mind and heart are with the kids I worked with at Ikuskik School. Keep writing, learn a lot about photography from the other Monique -- that way, you will be able to tell your stories. I already miss you guys!

 

 

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Book Recommendation: Subject to Change by Karen Nesbitt

I'm excited to tell you about my friend Karen Nesbitt's upcoming YA novel, Subject to Change. I got an ARC (that stands for Advance Reading Copy) from Orca Book Publishers so I had a chance to read the novel before it comes out in stores at the end of February. LIt was a great read. Tough at first because the main character, Declan, faces so much hardship -- but well worth reading because of everything Declan discovers about others and himself.

Tonight, I had a chance to catch up with Karen by telephone. We met in 2010 when Karen was in a Quebec Writer's Federation course that I co-taught with YA author Lori Weber. That was also when I first met Declan -- and he's a character who felt real to me from the first time I read about him.

Karen also had the good fortune to work with another Montreal-based YA author, Raquel Rivera, through the QWF's mentorship program. Karen says that Raquel really helped her to get her manuscript into shape -- and to get deeper into her characters.

Karen, who works as a guidance counselor at Westwood Senior School as well as at an alternative school called Horizon, told me that she based Declan on a young man she worked with. "His situation was similar to my protagonist's. He discovered that his dad was gay," said Karen.

Leah, another important character in the book, was inspired im part by Karen's niece. "She hiphop dances and she has beatiful hair," Karen told me. "But Leah is a composite of lots of kids I know," she added.

I asked Karen whether she had writing advice to share with you, dear blog reader. Here's what she told me: "Entertain your own fancy. Write what you want to write. Your own ideas will result in more interesting stories because you're more attached to them."

Karen also credits a writers' group for helping her to complete the manuscript that became Subject to Change. She actually met two of the other members of her writing group in the class she took with Lori and me. I've never been part of a writing group myself, but I wanted to learn why it helped Karen so much. She said the feedback she got from the group helped her improve her manuscript: "They were tough. They forced me to look at what I wrote critically. You have to hear it when people say, 'This is what I feel like when I read it.'"

I know how I felt when I read Subject to Change -- lucky. I hope you'll read it too!

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Quebec Roots Goes to St. Monica School

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know all about Quebec Roots -- an amazing Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project that brings teams of writers and photographers to classes across the province so that students can contribute to a real life book!

Today, visual artist Thomas Kneubuhler and I visited St. Monica School (which happens to be around the corner from my house in Montreal). We worked with Mr. Trister's (the students call him "Mr. Noah") grade five class and they were AMAZING.

In today's pic, we are with a student named Raquel. She is showing us her journal. She first whipped out her journal when I was talking about mine, and about the importance of making writing a daily habit. Raquel's journal has two entries in it -- so it's pretty new. When I did a little RESEARCH, I found out something super interesting -- that Raquel paid for the journal with her own money, and that she is a businessperson. She sells soap she makes herself. One of the scents she uses is called "grapefruit blush." Can't you just smell it?

Thomas taught the students some photography tips and I taught writing tips. One thing Thomas told the class was that, "Sometimes you need to shoot a portrait 10 to 20 times to get it right." Which made me interrupt and ask the class, "What's that like in wriitng?" And because they are so smart, they knew the answer: RE-WRITING!!

One of our main goals today was to help the students brainstorm a sujbect for their chapter in the 2017 edition of Quebec Roots. There was a close vote -- the two final choices were "Accidents/Booboos/Fights" and "Being a Newcomer." "Accidents/Booboos/Fights" won by a narrow margin. I thought it was fascinating that many students in the class had stories about accidents. Louie's mom crashed her car yesterday (it was really icy here in Montreal) and a student named Youssef has an unusual scar on his head (the result of an operation he had when he was a baby). A student named Ernest has a booboo caused by excessive nose-blowing. I don't know about you, but I am already looking forward to seeing the work Mr. Noah's class does for their chapter in this year's Quebec Roots.

Three cheers for Mr. Noah and his class, and three extra loud cheers for Quebec Roots. We're so glad to be back on the road -- reaching students across Quebec!

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"What if the lunch monitor and the school secretary were sisters?" -- Another Happy Day at St. Thomas High School

You are probably wondering where I got the idea for the title of today's blog entry, "What if the lunch monitor and the school secretary were sisters?"

Catchy, don't you think?

The idea came during junior lunch at St. Thomas High School, where I was completing my last day of a series of writing workshops. I had lunch with two girls named Jordan and a guy named Noah, and the three of them started inventing a story which started with the question, "What if the lunch monitor and the school secretary were sisters?" Those three students were super inventive because their story got better and better. Their fictional characters turn the children into food and serve them up to the other students. A dog named Cricket (a real life dog who is the school's mascot) sniffs out the trouble!

I often tell students that for me, writing is a mix of work and play -- my three lunch companions were definitely having fun PLAYING with ideas. Now if they'd get to WORK, I think they could write a great story together!

Today, I worked with students in grades seven, eight and nine. One of the best questions I got all day was from a seventh grader named Kurt (he's Miss Beach's student). Kurt asked, "Isn't it a bit disrespectful to let someone else's secret out in public?" This question arose after I told the students how I got my mum to share a story she had kept secret for more than 60 years -- about her experience as a child in a Nazi concentration camp. I answered Kurt's sensitive and mature question with something my mum once told me, "If you think it helps kids to hear the truth about my life, go ahead and tell them!"

In the afternoon when I was working with the grade nines, I focused on writing exercises. With Mr. Katz's class, we did observation and discussed how what we observe reveals something about us. With Miss Ditchburn's class, we did an exercise that required students to access a memory of trouble. Nicholas came up with a beautiful phrase that he gave me permission to quote here: "pushing deeper into my regret." And a student named Samantha stole my heart when she described witnessing a family argument. Instead of focusing on the actual argument, Samantha wrote, "My cat jumps on my bed to try and console me. He curls up in my lap." Beautiful work, Samantha, and so moving!

So that wraps up my writing workshops at St. Thomas High School for this year. Special thanks to librarians Mrs. Pye and Mrs. Di Maulo for hosting me, to the teachers for sharing your classes with me, and to the students for being a great audience. If I need young readers to test my next story on -- well, I know where to go! Happy reading and writing to all of you! Remember -- life and writing require courage!

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"What If a Whole Class Was on the Run From the Law?" -- Day 3, St. Thomas High School

Today's pic was taken on my third day of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School. Mostly, I've been at the school to work with grade nine classes, but today, I had the added pleasure of working with two grade seven groups. It was Matthieu, a grade seven student in one of Miss Beach's classes who came up with a story idea that inspired the title for today's blog post: "What if a whole class was on the run from the law?" Hey, Matthieu, I'm pretty busy with writing at the moment, so I think YOU SHOULD GET STARTED IMMEDIATELY ON THAT BOOK! Also, does your name really have two t's in it -- or did I get it wrong? (If so, let me know and I'll fix it.)

As usual, I have many things to report about my visit. One of the highlights was meeting a young man, Noah, who is another of Miss Beach's grade seven students. Like me, Noah loves doing research (I told the students that research tends to be an essential part of the fiction-writing process). At recess, I also learned that Noah also loves drawing and that, in fourth grade, a friend challenged him to write a book. "I completed two chapters and then I ran out of ideas," Noah told me. So I gave him my advice: to keep writing, even when it feels like the ideas are not coming. Sometimes, I even write on the page things like, "I am stuck. I hate this. This part is so frustrating. Why do I even want to be a writer?" And you know what? If I stick with it, I almost always get UN-STUCK!

Mr. Katz's class got a good laugh when I read aloud something a student named Abdullah had written: "This exercise did not work for me!" But they stopped laughing when I read the next sentence: "There were too many things jumping around in my mind." Excellent news, Abdullah, because it sounds to me like you are a person with a lot of stories to write and tell.

In Ms. Ditchburn's class, three girls sitting together (Alicia, Cameron and Samantha) all like to ask my favourite question: "What if?" I told them that if they cannot turn off the "What if?"" switch in their brains, and if they hate their very first drafts, they might be real writers!

I was also impressed with Palmer, one of Ms. Ditchburn's ninth graders, who described his classmates in this way: "Everyone seems to be looking around and smiling. They are all holding in a laugh... well, most of them." What I like about Palmer's writing is that it captures a moment, and that it also gives us a sense of Palmer's observant and humorous nature.

Lunch time was pretty special too -- that's because I told students to come and hang out with me in the library if they felt like it. I showed a few of them the manuscript I am working on (I'm at the stage where I am responding to my editor's comments) and the students helped me get the wording right in a few spots. (Thanks, guys!) Sarah and Amanda, both excellent writers, showed me some of their work. Sarah is working on a fascinating project about "untold stories throughout history" and Amanda is writing about a boy who does not want to hang out with a cousin, only to discover that he really likes her. Amanda has a flare for dialogue. At one point in her story, the narrator's thoughts are interrupted by a question: "Lemonade?" (I just loved that.)

A student named Alex was part of our lunch bunch too. He told us he was named after Alexander the Great. Cool! Also, he told us about his great-grandfather, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz because he worked as a tailor for the Nazis. Alex, you must write that story!

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday -- and available at junior lunch. Thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye, for inviting me, and to Miss Beach, Mr. Katz, and Ms. Ditchburn for sharing your classes with me. As for the students, KEEP WRITING. (And reading.) See you next week!

 

 

 

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Super vendredi, oops Friday... at Ecole Secondaire de le Seigneurie!

I had a super vendredi -- oops! I am not supposed to be speaking French -- at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie in Beauport, just outside Quebec City.

In today's pic, I'm looking at a student named Hélèna's journal. She is one of Mr. Lord's students -- and when I asked the class if any of them make a HABIT out of writing (I was discussing the value of writing regularly so that we can keep our writing muscles limber), Hélèna lifted up her journal as proof that she loves to write. After my workshop (when this photo was taken), Hélèna told me: "I love being able to take the ideas in my head and put them onto paper." It sounds to me, Hélèna, like you have caught the writing bug. Félicitations... I should say CONGRATULATIONS!

In all, I worked with four Secondary III classes. I spent the morning with Mr. Lord's students, and the afternoon with Mr. Michaud's. The students at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie are French-speaking, but because I have visited the school before, I know that their English is very strong. I also know because they followed me (if you know me, you know that I get quite excited when I talk about writing and that I move quickly from one idea to another) without difficulty.

When I told the students that I never read without a pen (because I am always taking notes), a student named Maxim nodded and said, "I do that all the time!" Like Hélèna, Maxim seems to have the writing bug. When we had a few minutes to chat, Maxim asked me how I get ideas. I told her, "Ideas come to me." I explained that if she decides to become a writer, really commits to the idea of developing her talent, ideas will come to her too!

One of Mr. MIchaud's students, Ilyas, had two copies of my book What World Is Left. I learned that one copy belonged to his friend Thomas (Ilyas wanted me to autograph both books -- that's why he had Thomas's copy with him.) I was telling the class about my mum, who died last week, and whose experience in a Nazi concentration camp inspired What World Is Left. I told Ilyas how my mum loved to flirt with men of all ages -- and that, if she'd met him, she'd definitely have commented about his excellent hair!

A student named Rosalie nodded like crazy when I told her class that reading is my safe place. Rosalie told me that her preferred place to read is her bedroom. And when I told the class that when I hear a good story, I get goosebumps -- Rosalie kindly provided the French translation: "frissons." Don't you think the word "frissons" is much nicer than "goosebumps"?

Like me, a student named Frédérique confessed that she enjoys listening in on other people's conversations. (It's another common trait in writers.) I also learned that Frédérique's parents are both chefs. Now, that would make an interesting family for a book -- two chefs and their only daugher. Maybe because I love food, I often compare writing to cooking -- like chefs, we writers need good ingredients or material to get us started; we need to do research (for chefs that could mean studying recipes); and we need to adjust our creations in order to improve them (for chefs, that could mean adding spices; for writers, it means editing.)

I was a little sorry when 4:15 arrived and it was time to say good-bye to the last class at Ecole Sécondaire de la Seigneurie. You students were wonderful -- and I thank you for being especially kind when I told you about my mum's story and her recent death. Special thanks to Mr. Lord for arranging my visit, and to both Mr. Lord and Mr. Michaud for sharing your lovely students with me.

Bonne fin de semaine, mes amis à Beauport. Grand merci pour votre acceuil chaleureux!

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I Tried Not to Write Another Blog Entry Today...

I tried not to write another blog entry today, but my plan failed. That's because I had too many interesting moments during my second day of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School!! So although I'm only home for another hour (I'm heading to Quebec City to do more writing workshops there tomorrow), I could not resist filling you in on today's developments!

Because this was my second day with the same students, there was time to tell them about how mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp (a story she kept secret for more than 60 years) inspired my novel What World Is Left. I also told the story of my monkey man necklace... and then we moved on to a variety of writing exercises.

What, you may be asking, is the meaning of today's pic -- in which you see me and a student named Cory admiring a stuffed crow? Well, it's because I asked the students to observe something interesting in their classrooms -- and Cory came up with the crow. Here's how he described it: "It looks like he has gotten himself stuck in time because he isn't moving." Interesting, no?

Most of the exercises I did with the students today focused on observations and how what we observe reveals interesting things about what matters to us -- or in the case of fiction, our characters. A student named Anastasia observed something that cracked me up -- that there was a long black piece of thread hanging from the bottom of my leopard-print skirt. I loved Anastasia's description of the thread: "It almost touches the floor and dances around as her skirt moves in motion with her body." (Not to leave you in suspense here -- I tore off the errant thread, although I did like the idea of it dancing around with me!!) In another exercise, Anastasia reflected that her observation showed that she may be what she described as "a bit of a perfectionist."

A student named Giuliana observed a dying poinsettia plant. "It looks," she wrote, "sad, wilted, dry." In her reflection, Giuliana added, "I think my eyes met with the flowers because I had a hard week." That sentence and the way Giuliana said her eyes "met" with the plant really touched my heart.

I spent lunch in the library and I encouraged aspiring writers to come and show me their work or talk to me about writing. A student named Sophie told me, "What I write is never as good as what's in my head." I loved that -- you know why? Because it's the way I feel about writing every single day -- and I bet most professional writers feel that way too. So guess what, Sophie? You're on the right track!

A student named Maya showed me the work she had done during my workshop yesterday -- she'd written about her memory of a family dinner. The third line really grabbed me: "It was an odd night to have pie." I told Maya to move that line up so that it was the opening of her piece. And then I suggested she could even use it for a book title: It Was an Odd Night to Have Pie. I don't know about you -- but I would so want to read that book.

Well then, that's enough blogging from me for today. I'll be at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie tomorrow, then back at St. Thomas next Tuesday. Something tells me there'll be plenty more to report to you!

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Hard Day/Wonderful Day at St. Thomas High School

Hello, dear blog readers. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you'll know what a great woman my mum was -- and that her experience in a Nazi concentration camp inspired one of my novels. She had been in hospital for 3-1/2 months and she died peacefully early Sunday morning. I tried to visit every day (I only missed four days) and I read a lot to her from the poetry book my grandparents gave to me when I was a little girl. I like to think that poetry (like me, my mum loved words) brought her a little solace at the end of her life.

Today, I was scheduled to do the first of four writing workshops at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire -- and though I had the option to postpone the visit, I had a hunch that it would do me good to be with teenagers and to talk about writing, and about how my mum's story shaped me as a person and a writer. And you know what? My hunch was right. So I'd like to start today's blog entry by saying thank you to every single student I worked with today, to your teachers and to my friend, librarian Mrs. Pye, for your kindness and open hearts.

I'll be working with eight Grade Nine classes at St. Thomas, and I'll get to see each class twice. That gives me time to cover some basic writing tips, and also to get the students writing.

In today's pic, I am with two students named Sydney and Nelson. I asked Sydney about the piece of plastic I happened to notice her chewing on -- and it led to the discovery of a sweet story. The plastic turns out to be what was left of the price tag on the grey top she was wearing. So, I demonstrated to Sydney's class (taught by Mr. Katz) some investigative reporting. Here's what I learned: the top was a Christmas present from Sudney's grandmother; her grandmother picked the top out personally; the top is made by a company called Pink; and here comes my favourite part of the story (a quote from Sydney): "My grandmother understands what I like." So, you see, all from a little tag I learned quite a lot about Sydney's relationship with her grandmother.

I also worked with two of Miss O'Neill's classes. I asked a couple of students' permission to share here what they wrote about remembering trouble. A student named Destiny came up with a haunting line to describe an experience when she was in Sec. I: "I had no one." And a student named Gabriel wrote about feeling, "Disappointment... the struggle of them not seeing what they were doing." I think Destiny and Gabriel should expand the pieces they started on today, don't you?

I also enjoyed reading something written by Abby, a student in Mr. Cloney's class. Abby started off her memory of Sec. II by writing, "I got in trouble on a daily basis." I definitely wanted to keep reading that paragraph! I also got a chuckle (always a good thing for a reader) when Abby recalled being sent to a school administrator whom Abby and her friends called "Dragon Nose." You know, Abby, they say it's harder to make a reader laugh than to make him (or her) cry... even from your little paragraph, I have the sense that you have a talent for humorous writing. Use that talent!

I'd like to end today's blog entry by telling you about a student who wasn't even in one of my workshops. Anna, a tenth grader (I'd met her when I visited the school last year), popped into the library to help put plastic covers on new books. When Anna asked how my holidays were, I told her the truth: that my mum had been sick and that she died on Sunday. I added that my mum -- despite her early difficulties -- had had a long, great life. And you know what Anna said? "That's awesome!" Thanks, Anna, for your wisdom and optimism. I phoned my dad to tell him about you.

I'll be back at St. Thomas tomorrow, then on to Ecole Secondaiare de la Seigneurie in Quebec City on Friday. Happy new year to you, dear blog reader -- here's to awesome-ness.

 

 

 

 

 

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New Year's Interview with Lucas Bully-Stomper

Happy new year, dear blog readers! I thought I'd get 2017 off to a good start with an interview with a special young man I want you to meet. Here's introducing Lucas the Bully-Stomper!

I met Lucas a couple of years back when I visited Joliette High School. That's when he first told me about his life as a bully-stomper. At the time, I knew I'd have to write about Lucas one day. And today turns out to be that day!

Lucas is now 17 and in his final year at Joliette High. As you would expect, a bully-stomper must have an interesting story behind him -- and Lucas does.

During elementary school, Lucas was bullied for five years. He turned to his mom for help; she went to the school principal, but as Lucas puts it, "no one believed me." Lucas recalls that the kids who bullied him called him "ugly" and "fat." Things got so bad that when Lucas was in sixth grade, he tried to commit suicide.

Music helped Lucas find comfort in those dark days. He knew he didn't have a great singing voice, but Lucas discovered that he had a talent for speaking quickly -- and so rap was a natural choice. Lucas now raps and does motivational speaking. Last August, he performed at the skate park in Rawdon to an audience of about fifty. And Lucas's Facebook page has had 1,000 visitors!

I asked Lucas what advice he has for other kids who are being bullied. This is what he told me: "Speak out and make yourself heard. Suicide isn't an option. What you're going through is just one point in your life. You can't let it determine your future."

I guess now you understand why I wanted you to meet Lucas. Please pass on his words to any kids you know who can benefit from Lucas's message -- and his music. Happy new year!

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Happy Morning at Lakeside Academy

I'm just home from a happy morning at Lakeside Academy. Here's some of the reasons my morning was happy. The teacher who invited me to teach -- Miss Daigle -- was my former student at Marianopolis College. How fun to see what a great teacher she is, how her students both like and respect her. Second reason -- the library felt like home the moment I walked in (even if I knocked at the wrong door first!!). Third reason -- this was the first time I read my upcoming picture book text to a class (two classes in fact) -- and I think that though the text could be a little shorter, it worked. Which goes to show you that authors should always READ THEIR WORK OUT LOUD! And there's a fourth reason too -- I got to laugh! A student named Jayden (lovely young man by the way, I could tell he's full of important stories!) asked me, "How do you spell 'Revise'?" Because I was in a hurry to tell the students all my pointers, I told Jayden not to worry about how to spell the word -- and then his teacher, Miss Jones, said to Jayden, "You'll REVISE it later!" Thanks for the laugh, Jayden and Miss Jones.

I worked with three groups of students -- they included grade sevens, eights and nines, and also students from the school's pre-work program. In the second group, a student named Austin told me, "My whole family's shy." I told Austin that I think that would make an amazing title for a picture book. Just don't forget to add TROUBLE to your story, Austin. That also made me think of another idea for a pic book -- if it was about my family, it could be called "My whole family's NOT shy!!"

The last group were Ms. McCulloch's grade sevens. These students had amazing questions. Lisi wanted to know, "Is writing like acting?" No one's ever asked me that before, so I loved her question. I told Lisi that yeah, I think writing and acting have a lot in common. Both fiction writers and actors get to be other people, to try on other lives. I think that's partly why I love writing so much. Of course, writing is better than acting if you happen to be shy (though that isn't my case). A student named Khenyan asked, "Do you use dreams when you make books?" That question got me pretty excited because I'm a great believer in finding inspiration in dreams. That's why I take so many naps.

Finally, a student named Luca caught my attention because he just looks so smart. (That's him wearing glasses in today's pic.) He nodded with what seemed to be great understanding when I talked about the connection between lies and fiction. I told the students that in real life, I'm a terrible liar -- but that I'm a good liar when it comes to making up book stories!! And when we discussed how trouble helps FUEL a story, Luca commented, "So when you get in trouble, it helps you bridge off and make stories about trouble."

Now you understand why my morning was so happy. Thanks to the students for being wonderful, to the teachers, espeically Miss Daigle, for sharing your classes with me, and to my new friend librarian Miss Jenn!

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Love is Forever -- Special Visit to Dumas, Texas

For the last few falls, I have been visiting Dumas, Texas. Not in person, mind you, but petty close to it. That's because I've been Skyping with the Grade Six students at Dumas Intermediate School. I've been invited to tell them a little about my life as a writer, but mostly the focus is on the Holocaust, and my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience in a Nazi concentration camp.

My mum was 12 -- the same age as some of the Grade Six students I worked with today -- when she was sent from Amsterdam to Theresienstadt, where she was imprisoned for nearly three years. I told the students that, when I was growing up, I had a difficult relationship with my mum. Things changed when I finally learned her story. I was the first person she told about her experience during the Holocaust. She had kept her story secret for more than sixty years.

In past years, my mum has been able to say hello on Skype to the students, but sadly, this year, she is quite ill in hospital. But if she's well enough tomorrow, I will read her this blog entry when I visit. Also, I chose the photo in today's blog entry for my mom. The student in the pic is named Faith and I love how her sweatshirt says, "Love is Forever."

I wanted the students to know something really important about my mom -- that despite the difficulties she went through as a teenager, that she emerged WHOLE, and that she had a great sense of humour. Also, I shared the message that, in past years, she shared with students in Dumas: that they must never give up hope. She told them that the Nazis were able to take away their food, their clothing and their homes, but NEVER THEIR HOPE. AND THAT THAT HOPE HELPED TO KEEP THEM ALIVE.

I did two presentations this morning, and there was time at the end of both for questions. I must say I was deeply moved by the students' sensitivity and intelligence. A student named Abram asked, "How does it feel to be in a concentration camp?" I answered by trying to put myself in my mother's place (the way I did when I wrote the book), and I told Abram that in my view, the main feeling would be injustice. If you're in prison for robbing a bank, well, that would make sense -- but my mother was imprisoned simply because she was Jewish -- and that's unjust. And a student named Josée (correct me Josée if there's only one 'e' in your name and I'll fix this entry) asked a beautiful question: "Was your heart broken when you learned your mother's story? And did you cry?" I told him the truth: that my heart was broken sometimes, but at other times, I felt privileged and even happy to be getting the story. THAT'S BECAUSE I'M A WRITER. We writers live for stories. And in my own way, I think I helped my mum by allowing her to finally tell her story -- and to get it out into the world so that others can learn, and be inspired by it. When I told all that to Josée, he said something super kind: "I'm so glad for you."

I asked one of the students, Nolan, in the second group to record a video message for my mum. He thanked her for sharing her story. Nolan, when I go back to the hospital tomorrow morning, and if she's well enough, I will play her your message.

Many many thanks to my friends at Dumas Intermediate for inviting me to visit again, especially to Cathy Craigmiles, who has become my friend over the years. And a special thanks, too, to the students for being such wonderful listeners and for asking such wise questions. Now get to work on your own stories! Make writing and reading your habits -- and interview the people who drive you crazy sometimes; find out what they went through when they were growing up. I look forward to reading YOUR stories.

A big hug for all of you from Monique

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Adventures at Rosemere High School

I don't want you to think that the students I spoke to this morning at Rosemere High School were NOT paying attention, but I could not resist taking this pic of a young man doing a cool trick with the bookmark I gave him! I might be able to write books, but I sure can't do that with a bookmark!!

So, I was at Rosemere High this morning to work with two of Miss Lawrence's Grade Eight English classes. There were also some extra students who got to come because they LOVE writing. Yay!

In addition to sharing every writing tip I know, I told the students a few stories. (I have a new one this week about how a long thin green leafy stick came out of my cat's nostril this weekend.) There was also time for a writing exercise and I asked the students' permission to share some of their work in today's blog entry.

Sara-Elizabeth wrote about the day she met her best friend. I love how she used sound to take us into her story: "I could hear her dad washing his car, her mom gardening, and her brother playing basketball." A student named Shanie wrote about having experienced trouble. I was impressed by the poetic quality of her words: "I could see good times disappearing.... It felt like someone had turned the sun off inside my house." Elisa had a brilliant title for her piece: "The Day I Realized I Could Never Trust Anyone Again." Hey, Elisa, I'd read that book for sure! And a student named Cedric showed me some work he had already done -- it comes from the prologue to his novel-in-progress. Here's my favourite line: "The dark empty room was so quiet, I could hear my tears dropping onto the ground."

So I'm supposed to go and inspire students, but when I look at my notes from today, and think about my morning at Rosemere, I realized they have INSPIRED ME!

If you've met me, you'll know I'm crazy about body language. Well, I collected a new example of body language today. A student named Lindsay tugged on her ear when she answered my question about whether there were any students in the class who like to play what I call "the what if game." That means they're always asking themselves "what if?" Lindsay says she's one of those people -- and I told her that will help her with her stories.

I also liked that a student named Raquela noticed there was a coffee stain in the diary entry I showed the class. Writers also need to be careful observers.

Okay, dear blog reader, I've got to zip out of here to go to my own class at Marianopolis College. Thanks to Mrs. Lawrence for the invite, and to the students for getting my week off to a happy, stimulating start!

 

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"I started writing a book, but I'm not that good at it"

I spent the first half of today doing four writing workshops at Lindsay Place High School in Pointe-Claire. It's Hallowe'en in case you are trying to figure out why there is a ghoul in my lap in today's pic!

The title of this blog entry comes from one of my favourite conversations I had at Lindsay Place today. A student named Krista came to chat with me after my workshop and told me that, "I started writing a book, but I'm not that good at it." I got quite excited when Krista said that because IT'S EXACTLY HOW I FEEL EVERY TIME I WRITE. I also told Krista that there is only one thing she can do -- KEEP WRITING. I even think Krista's dissatisfaction with her writing could be a sign that she's a REAL WRITER. In fact, for me, the challenge is to keep writing, keep working hard, despite the doubts I feel almost every time I sit down to write.
I worked with four of Mrs. Russell's classes -- two grade sevens, and two grade eight groups. I had met the grade eights last year, so we discussed some rather complex material, such as that hearing someone's story can be both a privilege and a burden.

A student named Owen noticed that I was jotting a lot of stuff down. He observed, "You take a lot of notes" and asked, "Do you have a notebook with you at all times?" I told him the answer was YES. I almost always have a notebook with me. That's because we writers never know when a good idea will strike. I also suggested to the students I met today that they do the same thing -- keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas and observations.

Because each workshop was 50 mintues long, there wasn't much time for the students to do their own writing. But I did manage to fit one exercise in with the group of grade eights I worked with before lunch. I asked them to access a memory (I explained that memory is an important part of a writer's toolbox). They wrote some beautiful stuff and I asked two students' permission to quote them here. Yutong Hu, an exchange student who comes from China, wrote about a plane trip to Canada and how she tasted orange juice for the first time. She ended her piece by sharing something her mum told her on that plane ride: "You will be okay." I love that line. A student named Samantha wrote about her love for books. Here's my favourite line from Samantha's piece: "Most of my books are used, so they all have personalities."

Before I sign off for today, I want to tell you one more little story that helps explain why I have a special spot in my heart for Lindsay Place. Last year, I was contemplating writing a story about an untraditional princess. Then, during a visit to Lindsay Place, I met a lovely student named Angelica. Angelica's teacher, Mrs. Russell, told me that everyone calls Angelica "Jelly." Well, that was the inspiration I needed to get that book project started. Angelica, AKA Jelly is coming out in 2018 with Orca Books! And I couldn't have done it without my friends at Lindsay Place. Special thanks to the students for being wonderful, and to Mrs. Russell and librarian Mrs. Dunning for arranging my visit today. Oh, thanks also to Principal Estok, who dropped by to catch part of my workshop -- only I thought he was the chef from the cafeteria. I guess I was so pleased that a chef wanted to learn about writing that I totally forgot it was Hallowe'en. See what I mean when I say STORIES ARE EVERYWHERE!!!

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Reporting in from Greenwood StoryFest 2016

I have always wanted to be invited to the Greenwood StoryFest -- and this year my wish came true. This small, but wonderful literary festival, now in its 15th year, takes place at the historic Greenwood House in Hudson, Quebec. This year's participating authors included Terry Fallis, Heather O'Neill, Marina Endicott, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Gail Anderson-Dargatz and Eric Siblin.

For my stint at the festival, I did a writing workshop yesterday afternoon. There were a dozen of us in all, gathered in the diningroom. We worked on "Finding the Fun in Writing." Although I LOVE my students at Marianopolis College, I must say it was a treat to work with people who were so eager to write. In my classroom, when I announce we're going to do a writing exercise, I'm used to hearing a round of groans, grumbles, sighs and "do we have to's?"!! 

So for today's pic, I decided to let you see what it looks like when a dozen people LOVE TO WRITE. In fact, I had a hard time stopping them!

We did six or so exercises to help find the fun in writing -- that's because, as I explained to the participants, writing is a curious mix of hard work and great fun. Sometimes, on a really good day, we hit the sweetspot between those two experiences. One of the exercises we did involved accessing a childhood memory. I asked some of the participants whether I could go ahead and share some of my favourite lines that they came up with -- and they said yes!

Sandy wrote about her memory of being home sick and missing a day at school. She didn't mind so much because, as she wrote, "I was afraid of my teacher in Grade Four." Don't you want to read the rest of Sandy's story?

We talked about how smells can lead us deeper into memories. Marian remembered being in elementary school and the "sharpness  [of the scent] from photocopies."

Janice shared a poignant memory of a day in a small town in Saskatchewan: "I wanted my brother to like me." That simple sentence struck me as beautiful and evocative.

Karen remembered, "my teacher's voice as she reads Red Fox out loud" and "my mother's soft fingers brushing my knees as she adjusts the hem of my new party dress." Don't you feel like you are there with Karen when you read those sentences?

I'm glad I got to take part in Greenwood StoryFest this year, and I'm especially glad I got to work with such a wonderful gang. And really, it felt more like fun than work! Special thanks to my friends at Greenwood for inviting me, and especially to Terry O'Shaughnessy for making it happen!

 

 

 

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Two Classes & Two Lunch Periods at Centennial Academy

Today was my last day of writing workshops at Centennial Academy. I've had a chance to work with every high school student in the school's English stream. And because I wanted the kids to have some time to ask me some more questions, or just to chat informally, I decided to take my egg salad sandwich to school and hang out in the cafeteria during the school's two lunch periods.

My day started with Miss McNaughton's Grade 10 class. She introduced them to me by saying, "They're my favourite Grade 10 class," but then she added that they were her ONLY Grade ten group. At first, the class -- all boys -- were kind of reserved, but they opened up when we started talking about how trouble fuels a story. A student named Emile told a story about his family that gave me goosebumps. Afterwards his classmate Yedidia commented, "We don't know what goes on in other people's lives, especially the people we go around with every day." And I should add, that as a special treat during lunch, Yedidia, who is a talented singer and songwriter, sang "Moondance." Thanks for that, Yedidia!

Both lunches were lively. Here are some of the highlights: a student named Stuart asked if I could sign his forehead. (I declined, but I admit that it would have been fun, and definitely a first!) A student named Nikolas told me that he loves writing, but that sometimes, he runs out of steam. "I get inspired," he told me, "but then, the next day, I lose my inspiration." I told Nikolas that for me, writing a book is like running a marathon -- you've got to keep at it even when you feel like you've got nothing left! A student named Kasi wanted to know where I got the idea for my novel Scarred. I explained that though I never cut myself, I feel like I understand the impulse behind self-mutilation. Kasi responded by saying, "You feel empathy, not sympathy" -- which I thought was a brilliant comment. That's what writers need to do, not feel sorry for their characters, but crawl inside their skin. And a student named Steve cracked me up when he said, "I read three of your books this summer. My parents kind of forced me."

I ended my day at Centennial with Miss Markies's Grade Nine class. Since I had met many of these students last spring, I did a more advanced session with them -- I reviewed my usual points, but there was time for a writing exercise. I had the students access a memory of a time when they felt they had changed. Kasi wrote a beautiful paragraph about her grandfather's death in 2013. I asked her permission to let me quote a line here. "He was the only grandparent who had cool stories and who taught me how to play golf." You know what I think, Kasi? That you should write about your grandpa -- and also play golf!

I had another special treat at lunch. The head of school, Ms. Burgos, came to sit with me. I asked her what she likes most about Centennial. She told me, "You're free to be who you are. That's why our kids grow and exceed expectations." I must say that that is the sense I got, too, of the students I've been working with this month at Centennial. Thanks to all of you for welcoming me into your classes, for listening to my stories, and for sharing yours. Here's to being free to be who we are!

 

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Another Happy Day at Centennial Academy

You know how you can tell for sure that I'm enjoying the kids I'm working with at Centennial Academy? This coming Monday, I'm going to go and eat lunch with them -- just so I can hear more of their stories and answer questions they may have come up with after meeting me.

Today, I worked with two of Miss Markies's English classes. Also, my day started off happily (no broken fridge, no bicycle with jammed brakes!)... Miss Markies must have noticed last week that I have an aversion to holding chalk, so she gave me the perfect gift: an electric blue chalk holder!! (I will treasure it always, Miss M!)

I started the morning with Miss Markies's Grade Nine class. They cracked me up when I asked how many of them (there were 15 students in all) TELL LIES and 12 of them put up their hands! I explained that fiction writers need to tell good lies! I told the students that I've been working on a book about a princess who tells lies. I asked them, "What do you think my editor warned me NOT to do?" A student named Oscar came up with the answer: "Don't make her typical," he said. Which is exactly right. A student named Michael suggested I combine characters from two of my books. A student named Avi pointed out something I never realized: there is a boy named Todd in my book Pyro and also in Home Invader. (I guess I like the name.) "What if they turned out to be the same person?" Avi suggested. And a student named Dario told me something wonderful his mom told him about people who have learning disabilities like ADHD. Dario's mom said, "We're not defective; we're different." (I love that philosophy!)

Later, I did a workshop for MIss Markies's Grade Ten students. A student named Benjie wanted to know whether there is a connection between the writing I do in my daily journal and the writing I do for my books. I explained that the journal is my warm-up activity, but that sometimes, when I'm in what I call a writing pickle, I use my journal to try and figure out a solution. A student named Alexia told me she also keeps a journal. "I've already filled five books," Alexia said. "I write about my day and how it was -- and if there were any problems." Alexia, you sound like a writer to me!

Many thanks to my friends at Centennial for another happy day of writing workshops. Hey, don't forget that I'll be around for junior and senior lunch on Monday. Come by to say hello!

 

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What Happens When An Author Writes a Musical Comedy?

I'm always interested in what happens when an author -- take my friend Joel Yanofsky -- tries a new kind of writing. Which is why I'm devoting today's blog entry to Joel and his new romantic musical comedy Love U: the Grad School Musical which premieres tomorrow night at the Segal Centre here in Montreal.

Joel and I had a phone chat this morning and he told me that he's spent 18 years (off and on, of course!) working on this project. His artistic partner is California-based musician Peter Curtis. Joel says that the best thing about this project was being part of a creative team. Thanks to Infinititheater, Joel got to work with a "unit" of playwrights and actors who workshopped their projects together.

I asked Joel what he learned about writing from the experience, and he told me that the biggest lessons came from seeing an audience (the other members of the unit) respond to his writing. "You get to sit there and notice how people are reacting at the time to things like pacing. You realize where you have to make it faster," Joel explained.

Joel also pointed out that book-writing tends to be a solitary process. "I'll miss the collaborative nature of this project," he said. But Joel feels that he will take the lessons he learned from his work on this musical comedy back to his book-writing: "I have a better understanding of the importance of getting to the action."

Hey, if you're in Montreal tomorrow night, maybe you'll want to come to the premiere of Love U: the the Grad School Musical. Tickets are free. Go to the Love U: the Grad School Musical Facebook page to learn more and to reserve a ticket.

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Isaak the Human Shredder -- and Other Tales from Centennial Academy

Wouldn't YOU read a book called Isaak, the Human Shredder? I came up with that title today at Centennial Academy where I met a 10th grade student who was doing something I had never seen a student do before -- not in my 32 years in the classroom! Isaak was shredding the side of his sheet of paper. I happened to be explaining to his class how writers need to OBSERVE INTERESTING STUFF TO INCLUDE IN THEIR BOOKS -- and well, Isaak turned out to be interesting. Hey, Isaak, I'm busy writing a few books right now, so how about YOU write that book instead of me?!

I visited FIVE classes today at Centennial, but because the school is known for its small class sizes, I think I got a chance to get to know the kids -- and they're fun and open-hearted. I started the day with Miss McNaughton's Grade 11 class and I was explaining how TROUBLE IS THE FUEL THAT MOVES A STORY FORWARD. I happened to lock eyes at that moment with a student named Sarah and I asked her whether she could see in my eyes that I'd tasted trouble. Sarah said yes, and then I told her that I saw from her eyes that she'd tasted trouble too. As I explained to Sarah and her classmates, understanding what trouble feels like (or tastes like, smells like, sounds like, or looks like) has helped make me a writer.

My next two classes happened to be boys only. When I asked Miss Byron's Grade 7 class if they liked being in a class with all boys, a student named Justin cracked me up with his answer. He said: "It's the best. There's no drama that way." Later, a student named Jean-Philippe shared a story that gave me GOOSEBUMPS. (I always get goosebumps when I hear something touching or beautiful). The story was about how this summer, Jean-Philippe got to hang out in the toolshed that once belonged to his great uncle who died. Jean-Philippe, something tells me you need to write a story set in that toolshed. And a student named Luke understood what I meant when I explained that many of my novels for kids are rooted in reality. "You mean you use a story you know with a new sheet of paint?" -- and then Luke corrected what he'd just said, turning it into, "You mean you use a story you know with a new coat of paint?" I LOVED THAT because Luke was demonstrating out loud something else that writers need to do: REWRITE!

Alexandre, a student in Miss Byron's Grade 8 class (also boys only), asked about the editing process. He wanted to know what my editor's main criticism was when she first read What World Is Left. I thought that was a really sophisticated question. I explained how my editor felt I was protecting Anneke, the character whom I based on my mom. My editor, Sarah Harvey, thought the book would be better if Anneke was angrier with her father. That turned out be great advice.

When I visited Miss Markies's Grade 10 class, I spoke to the students about doing research and how sometimes, grandparents have the best stories -- and how it's up to grandchildren to find those stories out. A student named Emily had a great suggestion. She said that looking at old photographs is a good way to get people talking about their pasts. Emily got the idea because recently she was visiting her grandmother's cottage -- and they looked at old photographs together.

I ended my day with another one of Miss Byron's Grade 7 classes. I warned them not to be too cute or too smart because I already had a lot of good material for today's blog -- but they didn't listen! Several students in this class are already hooked on writing. Zachary told us, "I write for hours. Sometimes my wrist hurts." And towards the end of my visit, Zachary said something else I could not resist writing down: "Whenever you go some place, you never know what people have been through." What beautiful words to use to end today's blog entry. You know what I think? That we can use language and stories to share what we have been through, and to learn about others' experiences as well. Thanks to all my friends at Centennial for a great day. I'll be back on Friday. And I already look forward to it!

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Happy Morning at Centennial Academy -- 1st School Visit of the New School Year

I'm always delighted when I'm invited to visit a school and talk about writing (and reading)... but I am extra-delighted about the visits I am doing this month at Centennial Academy in Montreal. That's because all the English-stream high school students at Centennial had a special reading assignment this summer -- they had to read one of my books!!

In all, I'll be visiting a dozen classes at the school, which is known for its small class sizes and the special attention students get from faculty and staff. Last May, I visited two classes at Centennial -- and I realized right away that the students at this school are my favourite kind of students because they're fun and full of life and they're not afraid to say what they are thinking!

Here's my first example. When I walked into Miss McNaughton's Grade 11 English class this morning, I asked a student his name and he told me, "It's not Benjamin; it's not Benito; it's not Benoit -- it's Ben!" (Of course I wrote that down right away since it's just the kind of line I'd love to use in a novel. Thanks for the inspiration, Ben!)

Which brings me to my next subject -- novels and how to write them. I told the students that I get many of my story ideas from real life. I also told them that I am especially interested in secrets (such as the one my mom kept for more than 60 years when she was not willing to talk about what happened to her during the Holocaust). A student named Mark, who's in Miss Byron's Grade Eight English class, told me he enjoys writing. Mark summed up what he learned from my talk; he said, "I used to just write about anything that came into my head. Now I can look around me and write about that!"

I also explained to the students that writing is HARD WORK. I told them that if they read their first draft and they think it's perfect, well then, they're probably not meant to be professional writers. (I HATE my first drafts, but then I re-write and re-write and re-write some more, and somewhere during that process, the writing starts to get better!) We also talked about the fact that though despite WORKING hard, writers also need to PLAY with language. I tried out a new playing-with-language exercise with two of my groups today. I asked students to make a list of what we call "imitative words" -- like bang and boom and moo. Then we read our lists out loud and filled the classroom with words. I laughed when a student named Raquel read the word ribbit (as in the sound a frog makes). I also liked Renee's cock-a-doodle-doo and Emma's zoom.

I hope the students I met today had fun during my workshops. I know I HAD FUN. I'll be back at Centennial first thing Monday morning. I hope to meet more interesting students and to spread the word that writing and reading are great habits, that they help connect us to others, and can help us understand the world a little better. Thanks to Miss McNaughton and Miss Richter for arranging my visit, and to Miss McNaughton and Miss Byron for sharing your students with me. See you Monday!

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First Writing Workshop of the Season!

I'm happy to report that my first writing workshop of the season was a BLAST -- if I may say so myself!

Today was the last day of this year's NDG Arts Fest and I got to do a workshop called "Making Writing Fun" at the beautiful new Benny Library. I had 16 wonderful participants. In the classroom, students sometimes moan when I make them do writing exercises, but I had the opposite problem with today's group -- I COULDN'T GET THEM TO STOP WRITING!!

The participants were writers of all ages and at all stage of their writing careers. Several had published more than one book; there were poets and translators and fiction and non-fiction writers. There were also several teachers, including Professor Lewis Poteet, who directed my thesis when I was doing my Master's degree at Concordia University in the early 80s! What an honour to have my former teacher in the group today!!

The focus was on doing fun exercises to help loosen up our writing muscles. When we went around the table to introduce ourselves, many of the participants explained that they'd come to the workshop because they needed to inject some fun into their writing process. Several are already hard at work on books and they're at the point where they're running out of steam -- a normal, if uncomfortable stage in the writing process!

We wrote with our non-dominant hands; we made self-portraits with words; we made lists; and we worked with old memories and dreams. For me, the three-hour workshop went by in a flash. Thanks to the Quebec Writers' Federation for funding the workshop. Many thanks, also, to the participants -- you guys were amazing and full of energy. The writing I sneaked a peek at was REALLY REALLY GOOD. I already look forward to reading the work that may grow out of today's session. And thanks to all of you for getting my new workshop season off to a happy, FUN start!!

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Dear Kimberly

It's been a while since I posted a new blog entry... but a student named Kimberly, whom I met in May at Joliette High School inspired me to write today's blog entry. That's because I got an email from Kimberly yesterday, asking me for some writing advice. I figured I might as well turn my reply to Kimberly into a blog entry that might be useful to other aspiring writers too! So here goes...

Dear Kimberly,

Thanks so much for your email. I've been spending most of my days this summer at the computer working on a new book project, so it's fun to hear from a real live person (I've been hanging out mostly with imaginary kids!!).

You said you are interested in writing a chapter book and you wanted to know how many chapter it should have and how long the book should be. You also wanted some tips for beginning and ending a story.

A good idea when you start a project is to go the library or bookstore and check out the section that has the kind of books you'd like to write. There are many kinds of chapter books and their lengths vary. In the spring, I finished my first chapter book. It is aimed for readers who are around eight years old and it has about 8,000 words. There are about 15 chapters -- which is about 500 words per chapter.

As for where to begin, the most important advice I can give you is to begin some place INTERESTING. You can start with a funny moment or a suspenseful moment, or with intriguing dialogue. The point is to catch your reader's interest from the very start. As for where to end, I usually figure that out as I go along. I often tell my students that when I was a kid, stories often ended in a "happy-ever-after" way. Today, most stories don't end with everything wrapped up perfectly. My favourite stories end with the sense that the characters have grown in some important and meaningful way.

I hope this advice proves useful. You've got over a month before you go back to school. Use that time to get cracking on your chapter book.

Best wishes from Monique

 

 

 

 

 

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Some Days You Get Just What You Need... Visit to Centennial Academy

I'm calling today's blog entry "Some Days You Get Just What You Need" because that's the kind of day I had at Centennial Academy. This was my last school visit until the fall and well... what I needed... was laughter and an appreciation for stories. Let me give you some background -- I recently started work on a new book project and I've decided to tackle a sad, difficult topic. But I know that if I want my story to work, it will need humour. So I've been trying to think up characters who are funny. Then lucky me -- I got invited to work with some very funny and FUN grade eight students at Centennial.

My invitation to speak at Centennial came from Miss McNaughton -- we met when she was teaching in Nunavik! But I worked with Miss Byron's English classes. One of the best things about Centennial is that classes are small and so it's possible to really get to know the kids.

Here's some of the things they came up with that made me laugh. I was telling the students that writers need to be OBSERVANT. For an example, I pointed to a student named James who had kicked off his shoes. I asked James, "Can I take a picture of your shoes?" and he answered, "It's not the first time someone's asked me that!" (I was so busy laughing at James's comment that I forgot to take the picture. Instead I settled for a picture of a weird pencil, which I'll tell you about a little later....)

A student named Dario also cracked me up when he put on a British accent and said he sometimes likes to pretend to be an imaginary person named General Bobo. This was especially funny to me because I call my cat (whose real name is Ninja) Bobo -- but now I'm going to call him General Bobo instead. You know what, Dario? Ninja (aka Bobo) was out before and when I called him in using his newest name "General Bobo," he came right home!! (I think he feels like he is getting more respect!!)

I also laughed after I told students that according to research, IT TAKES THREE WEEKS TO FORM A GOOD HABIT (I was talking about writing in a journal) and a student named Elle asked, "Is it the same for bad habits?" When I asked Elle if she had an example of a bad habit of her own, she said it was never hanging up her wet towel -- and that drives her mom crazy. Elle, summer's coming -- and I think it's time to start a new good habit. HANG UP YOUR TOWEL!!

My favourite funny line today also came from James. I asked the class to come up with words to describe himself and James said: "I'm socially awkard and so is the whole grade!" That made me laugh really hard and made me happy too. There's nothing healthier than being able to laugh at ourselves. As I told the students, I was a socially awkward teenager myself and now I'm just happy to be me. It took me many years to get this comfortable -- but I'd say James is well on his way.

Now you are wondering why I posted a photo of a strange pencil. That's because in the second class, I observed a student playing with this pencil. I learned the pencil belongs to another student, Jordan. I've seen many pencils in my day, but this is the strangest. It looks like it was run over by a tractor. I think someone should write the biography of this sad pencil. Maybe even the autobiography!

I want to end this blog entry with a little story: I told the students that my novel What World Is Left is based on the story of my mom's real-life experience in a Nazi concentration camp. This led a student named Michael to say, "What you just said hits close to home." Then Michael told me his grandfather who lived in Morocco also has stories about the war years. On his way out of class, Michael said, "I want to be a game developer, but I might write as a side thing" -- but the real end to my story happened about an hour or so after I left Centennial. That's because I went over to check on my parents. While I was there, the phone rang and I heard my dad talking to one of his neighbours. You'll never guess who she was?

Michael's grandmother!

Isn't life full of stories -- sad ones, happy ones, ones we will never forget? I couldn't have had a happier, more satisfying school visit to cap off a busy school year. Special thanks to Miss McNaughton and Miss Byron, also to my friend and fellow writer Elise Moser who came to hear my second presentation today (I showed the students her amazing YA novel Lily & Taylor), and to the students for making me laugh and think. If my new book book project turns out well, I'll have to thank you for the inspiration!

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Loads of Stories at Joliette High

I must say it was an EXCITING day today at Jollette High School.

I was there to do writing workshops with Miss Harrison and Mr. Balassone's Grade Seven English classes. There were 53 students in all. Originally, we were going to divide them into two groups, but when I heard I could have the students for TWICE AS LONG, well I suggested we combine the two groups. Now, in case you haven't figured this out for yourselves, 53 grade sevens is a lot of kids. But I must say that overall they were wonderful, and many did really beautiful work.

We talked about how TROUBLE is the gasoline that moves a story forward. So, of course, I was super interested when I learned that one student was carrying around what he told me is called a "tracer" -- he explained that it's like a behavior report. You know what? He should write a book called Tracer! I would definitely read it!

More trouble struck at lunch time when a student may have broken his wrist. In the morning, I worked with students in the CLC (community learning centre) room, but in the afternoon, we moved to the cafeteria. Well, imagine this: a student named Emilio and I  watched through the cafeteria windows as another student (I'll call him W) got into the school secretary's car so she could take him to the hospital ... and his arm was in a sling. Of course, I'm sorry for the young man's pain, but there was another story unfolding right before our eyes. "You should write it!" Emilio told me. I thought that since he goes to the school and will be there tomorrow to find out what happened, HE should be the one to write the story!

I also talked about the importance of uncovering secrets -- and of how sometimes, it's easiest to get older people to tell us their secrets. That's because seniors are sometimes lonely and they want to tell their stories! A student named William told me about his grandfather who came from Croatia and how, when he was young, he worked building roads. And a student named Alex told me about his interesting relatives who came from Greece. As I told Alex, "Get cracking on your stories!"

I also want to say a word about my lunch hour today at Joliette High. Usually, I just hang out at the library over lunch when I am doing a school visit, but today, I had some great company -- a bunch of students, as well as Mrs. Murphy, who runs the CLC and who coordinated my visit today. Looking back at lunch time, I realize I had some of the best conversations with kids that I've had in a long time.Here are some examples:

A student named Julia told me about her obsession with Dr. Who (she was even wearing a Dr. Who scarf). When I asked Julia what was so great about Dr. Who, she told me, "The characters" -- which prompted me to tell her it's the same with novels -- great characters make a book great!

Then there was Lucas, whom Mrs. Murphy described as the school's "in-house songwriter." It turns out that Lucas is a remarkable and very talented young man. He has written songs about bullying and suicide. I asked his permission to quote a little of his lyrics -- here goes: "Get shoved to the ground/ Pushed around / That's my life." I love that Lucas has found a way to turn difficult life experience into something beautiful. Check out his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/lucasthebullystomper

At lunch, I told the students who were there that I am working on a new manuscript in which I am hoping to use humour to help me explore a tough topic. That led us to a discussion of sarcasm. A student named Kaelly gave me a fun example of sarcasm. Kaelly's twin sister worries about her a lot, so this morning on the bus to school, when Kaelly's sister asked Kaelly whether she had remembered to bring her lunchbox (which Kaelly did remember to bring), Kaelly told her, "No!" Just to bug her sister! It's a small example, but I like it... so thanks, Kaelly, for this tidbit, which just might find its way into my new story.

Speaking of thanks, a big thank you to the students today for working hard and being attentive. Thanks also to your teachers and to Mrs. Murphy for making me feel so at home. I had a wonderful day with you guys!

 

 

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Back to the Source of of Inspiration: Heritage Regional High

 

I got the idea for my new book, Leggings Revolt, a few years ago when I was visiting Mrs. Eva's class at Heritage Regional High School in St. Hubert -- and the kids told me that they'd protested their school dress code. Today, I was back at Heritage Regional working with two spirited groups of students.

The first group was Mr. Bakali's Grade Nine class. One of the things I talked about was how writers need to pay attention to small, but telling details. In the pic at the top of this post, I caught two students with interesting body language. Nick was chewing on a wooden stick. "It helps me concentrate," he explained. And I caught Alissa twisting her hair and chewing on it. (I asked them both to demonstrate their moves for my pic!)

During my time with both groups, I tried to pack in as many writing tips as possible -- and to give each group a writing exercise. On her way out of the library where I did my workshops, a student named Vanessa told me she is writing a book about teens who have superpowers. Sounds like fun! Vanessa also said that she learned some stuff from me. "I learned," she told me, "to ask more questions." I decided that was a very good thing to learn -- asking questions leads to information, and we need information to tell a good story!

I finished the afternoon with Mrs. Eva's Grade 11 creative writing class. These students write super well! A student named Sammy wanted to show me a story he had written for Mrs. Eva in which he took the point of view of a suicidal tree. I asked his permission to quote my favourite line: "I was the sole survivor of 200 trees."

A student named Justin and I debated the use of rhyme. I told him that to my ear, most rhyme sounds forced. I jokingly told him, "Kill the rhyming monster!" -- and that made me start thinking that a story with a rhyming monster in it would be cool!

So thanks to the students I met today for being so much fun, and thanks to my dear friend and master teacher Mrs. Eva for the invite. It's nearly dinner and I should be tired, but there's something about Heritage Regional that gets me energized and inspired!

Hey, here's a pic of me with Mrs. Eva's young writers!

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Putting the Fun Back Into Writing!

It was a perfect day in Montreal -- blue sky, T-shirt only kinda weather. So, basically, not the kind of day most Montrealers want to spend indoors. But the 12 people I hung out with today weren't most Montrealers -- they were writers, all at various stages of life and work, and they all showed up to take my Quebec Writers' Federation workshop called "Putting the Fun Back Into Wiriting!" -- which explains the title of today's blog entry.

Usually, I do a lot of yakking -- but today, the focus was really on writing. I did tell the group that for me, writing is a curious mix of work and play -- mostly work, and that I, too, occasionally need an injection of fun. In fact, sometimes my editor Sarah N. Harvey reminds me, "Go have fun with your story!"

As a writing teacher, I've collected fun exercises which I use when my students seem to be running out of steam, or just to change things up in the classroom. Well, today, I pulled out all those exercises. We played with the sounds of words; we did self-portraits using words; and we tapped into childhood memories. I think it's safe to say we had fun!

I believe the participants in today's workshop learned some new tricks, but they also seemed to get the sense that they were on the right track. As I told them, if they managed to stay focused on writing from 10 AM till 4 PM (minus our lunch break) on such a gorgeous day, well then, they HAVE TO BE WRITERS!! Deborah, one of the participants told us she'd thought she'd given up writing, but then, when we were discussing how we love notebooks, she pulled three notebooks (all of them written in!) out of her bag, and said, "I realize I've been writing all along."

Special thanks to my "students" -- Vivianne, Renee, Britt, Rita, Maureen, Jeff, Cynthia, Deborah, Anne (that's Anne Renaud, my friend and fellow kids' author), Timothy, Claire and Cathy; and to the Quebec Writers' Federation for offering the workshop. It was my first time doing it and I hope it's okay THAT I HAD A GREAT TIME TOO.

Here's to hard work and happy play! May we find the sweet spot between the two in our lives, and in our writing!

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Cupcake Party at St. Thomas High School to Mark the Release of Leggings Revolt!

I'm just home from a super special celebration at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. Today's pic was taken at the school library. I was there to deliver 20 copies of my novel, Leggings Revolt, to the 20 Grade 10 students who helped me when I was reearching and writing the book. And sitting next to me in the grey sweatshirt is Mrs. Pye, the librarian to whom the book is dedicated!

I signed all 20 copies of course. In some I wrote, "I couldn't have written this book without you!" -- which is totally true. The idea for Leggings Revolt came a few years ago when I was visiting Heritage Regional High School and working with my friend Mrs. Eva's students. They told me that students at their school had organized a protest after they were forbidden to wear leggings. I was still thinking about that a year-and-a-half ago, when I was doing writing workshops with at St. Thomas. I told the St. Thomas students that I was toying with the idea of writing a novel about an unfair dress code and several of them agreed to drop by during their lunch hour to share their thoughts on the subject. That first lunch meeting was so successful that I came back several more times to have lunch and pick the brains of what became an informal focus group.

I like to think the students learned as much as I did -- and I learned a lot! They were pretty excited today when I gave them their copies of the book they had helped me write. (They were also pretty excited about the cupcakes that Mrs. Pye supplied!) As Brianna Losinger-Ross told me, "I would like to write professionally, so it was fun seeing it in real life and not just seeing videos or reading about the writing process." Averie Tucker added that, "It was cool to be able to pitch in ideas and help."

While we were feasting on cupcakes, I took the opportunity to talk to the students about the NEW project that I started this week. You will not be surprised to hear that they had LOADS of great ideas. Something tells me I'll be back at St. Thomas some lunch time soon. Huge thanks to all my friends at the school; to Mr. Abracen, the wonderful, supportive principal at St. Thomas; and to librarian extraordinaire, Mrs. Pye.

And... if you're wondering about the man with the camera -- he's from the Montreal Gazette. The newspaper's West Island section will be running a little story soon about how the students at St. Thomas helped me write Leggings Revolt!

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Follow the Clues -- from the Westmount Library

If you follow the clues in today's pic, you'll be able to figure out that I was doing another detective-story-writing workshop this morning. The event was also part of the Blue Metropolis Children's Festival and it took place at Westmount Library.

I was lucky to work with a lively group of Grade Five students from Miss Edgar's and Miss Cramp's School, as well as three visiting students from other neighbourhood schools. The ECS students were there with their teacher Miss Casement, their student teacher Madison Seller, and the school librarian Rennie Macleod.

I tried to tell the students everything I wish someone had told me about writing when I was their age -- mainly that writing is usually hard and often frustrating, and that that's why I like it so much. I guess I enjoy doing difficult things. I also told them to make writing a habit, even if they don't plan to become professional writers. When I asked how many students were interested in writing as a career, a whopping nine of them put up their hands. (Way to go, gang!)

I made sure to leave time for two detective-story-writing exercises. I got the students to imagine an unusual detective and then to come up with a cool crime scene. I also suggested that their detectives should have a backstories that might help explain why they became detectives in the first place. A student named Gunes had a great backstory for her detective: "She killed someone two years ago when she was mentally ill." You know what, Gunes? I'd read your book!

A student named Brianna came up with a great idea for a detective -- a fat butcher. Jade's detective was an undercover pastry chef. I told Jade that I thought "Undercover Pastry Chef" would make a great book title. And a student named Angel imagined a detective who is "the second daughter in a family of spies and robbers." Great ideas, don't you agree?

When we talked about crime scene investigation, a student named Megan knew that all ten of our fingerprints are different. (I never knew that until I started doing the research for Forensics Squad Unleashed). "My dad used to be a scientist and he told me that," Jade explained.

I was impressed that a student named Aneesa knew that the secret of writing is REWRITING! I liked how the ECS girls, Angelique in particular, raised their hands in a confident excited way. (I told the students that both writers and detectives need to be observant and that taking notes is a big part of both jobs.) A student named Alana asked, "Does diary writing count?" I told Alanna that every kind of writing counts. The more we write, the better we get -- and I suggested she might try writing her detective story in the form of a diary.

And then, there was a student named Serena -- whose name I am thinking of using in my next book!

Thanks to the students for working so hard and listening so attentively. Thanks to Blue Met for arranging the event, and to Westmount Library's children's librarian Wendy Wayling for organizing today's visit. What a great way to start this Thursday!

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Follow the Clues to Create Your Own Detective Story

To mark the release of Forensics Squad Unleashed, my first detective story for young readers, I've developed a new writing workshop called "Follow the Clues to Create Your Own Detective Story."

And I tried it out for the first time yesterday at the beautiful new Benny Library (which happens to be around the corner from my house!). The event was part of this year's Blue Metropolis Children's Festival. My test subjects were a group of Grade Six students from Ecole Judith-Jasmin in NDG. That's them in today's pic -- busy doing a writing exercise. (I made them invent a detective, then dream up a crime and boy! did they ever have some good ideas!) All you see are the students' backs -- that's because we weren't sure they had permission to be photographed -- but their teacher, Madame Normand, is smiling at you in the pic.

So, just like the title of my workshop promised, I shared clues for creating a detective story. We discussed the importance of establishing a setting, coming up with a personality and backstory for your detective, inventing a crime and a crime scene, and supplying suspects. I also read a little from the new book to give students an idea of how I put it all together.

All my books involve research. For Forensics Squad Unleashed, I attended a forensics camp for kids offered by the University of Toronto in the summer of 2014. I think it's safe to say that that was the most fun I ever had researching a book. I spent five days hanging out with a group of ten and eleven-year-olds and they never once complained about having a middle-aged lady tagging along!

I was really impressed by Madame Normand's students today. A student named Manshen knew all about forensics. He said, "It's people who investigate crimes and determine time of death and stuff." When I asked what the "cousin" of writing is, a student named David came up with answer I was looking for: "Reading!" he called out. Afterwards, David told me, "I read anything." And my heart really went out to a student named Paola who, during the writing exercise, WOULD NOT STOP WRITING. (That, by the way, is every writing workshop leader's dream!) I was also impressed by a student named Maya who set her crime story in a library! In Maya's story, there's a sign that reads, "Those who enter will suffer!" (She did not mean the Benny Library, of course!)

I also had a special guest -- Zahra Y., a grade three student who is being homeschooled by her fabulous mom, Amanda. Though Zahra was younger than the other kids in the group, she had no trouble keeping up. Also, since the last time I saw her, Zahra has been hard at work on her own story. 

It's going to be a busy week with the Blue Metropolis Festival in full swing. I'll try to keep the blog entries coming. In the meaning, follow the clues. And have fun while you're doing it! Special thanks to Blue Metropolis, and to Gaelle Bergougnoux and the Benny Library for hosting today's event.

 

 

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Why Holocaust Education Matters So Much

Yesterday, I was honoured to take part in Vanier College's annual Holocaust Symposium. The symposium's coordinator Marlene Grossman invited me to speak to Karen Rhodes's "Women Writers and the Short Story" class. Miss Rhodes and her students have been studying discrimination so the timing was right for me to tell them about my interest in Holocaust studies. I explained how my mum, who is 86, is a survivor of the Holocaust and how she kept her story secret for more than 60 years -- until a snoopy, curly-haired person (you guessed it -- me!) got it out of her.

As I told the class, I spent five months interviewing my mum -- and then several more months writing the first draft of the book that became What World Is Left.

One of the reasons I think Holocaust education is so important is because survivors, like my mom, are getting older. Now it's up to us to keep their stories alive.

During my talk, I told the students that they need to uncover their own family secrets. In a city like Montreal, many of our parents and grandparents come from other countries, and many have gone through tough times. A student named Alex told me that his Hungarian great-grandfather was a Jew who was used by the Nazis to do carpentry work. Alex told me he wants to interview his grandparents about their memories of life in Hungary, and what it was like to start over in a new country.

When I talked about the need to REWRITE, I caught a student named Sabrina nodding. So I asked Sabrina why she reacted to my comment. She explained that last year she did a special project with seniors about dignity. "I rewrote it 15 times," she said. Yay, Sabrina! You sound like a real writer!

A student named Janella is close with her grandmother who came from St. Vincent. But Janella told me that sometimes it is hard for her to distinguish whether her grandmother's stories are true or fantasy. I suggested that maybe Janella should try writing a story about her grandmother that combines memoir and fantasy. I'd definitely read it!

Holocaust education matters so that we can prevent the atrocities that happened from happening again. I don't know of a better way to reach people's hearts than by telling stories. Thanks to Miss Rhodes for sharing your class with me, and thanks to the students for being such an attentive, sensitive audience. Now go get the stories that matter!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Frabjous Day at the imagiNation Writers' Festival

I am writing today's blog entry from the train -- it's just a little after 8 AM and I am headed home after a whirlwind day (and night) in Quebec City, where I was part of this year's imagiNation Writers' Festival. And was it ever fun!!

I called today's entry "Frabjous Day..." because the talk I did was about my favourite subject: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its creator Lewis Carroll. I wrote my MA thesis on the Alice books and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I've read Alice at lest 600 times -- and that every time I read the book, I learn something new!

The imagiNation festival takes place at the Morrin Centre in Quebec City. It's a beautiful old building. Believe it or not, it used to house a prison and next time you are in Quebec City, you must pop over for a tour. My talk took place in the library. Now, I've been in lots of libraries, but this was the most magical library I ever saw. It's not a huge room, but there are two floors of books and there are beautiful balustrades and to top it all off, there was tea in porcelain cups.

The sweet girl with me in today's pic is Emily Fiset, a student from Cegep Garneau. She was there with several classmates and their teacher Tracy Burns. Emily made me laugh when she told me, "I'm interested and the library is gorgeous -- and I heard there's tea!"

If you know me, you'll know I had no shortage of things to say about Alice, but in my opinion, the high-point came at the end of my talk when I asked the audience if they knew Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky. Several people did and one brave soul, Katherine Burgess, came up to the podium to recite it with me. She made me feel like I was a kid again! Afterwards, I discovered that Katherine taught senior English for many years in Labrador, and that she's now the minister at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, which happens to be next door to the Morrin Centre.

That's not all I have to report. In the lobby of the hotel where I was staying, I met up briefly with fellow children's author Jacqueline Guest. Jacqueline was headed home to Calgary -- but not to worry, dear blog reader, I did a mini-interview with her which I am saving up for a future blog entry.

After my talk, I went to hear American bestselling author Jeffery Deaver talk about the writing process. His advice to the audience was "Outline! Outline! Outline!" An hour or so later, I caught Anna and Jane McGarrigle talking about their new book, Mountain City Girls -- and they said they never outline a thing. Which is one of the great things about a literary festival -- hearing different points of view and learning about what works for different authors.

Many thanks to Elizabeth Perreault and Jessica Kelly-Rhéaume for inviting me to the festival. I know what's most important is that the audience learns and has fun, but this writer HAD A BLAST!!

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Wonderful Wintry Day With Students from Centre Collegial de Mont-Tremblant

April 7 -- you might think winter was over in this part of the world, but it isn't. I had to drive in wintry weather on slick roads to get to the townhall in St. Jovite this morning. But it was worth it -- or in French, ça vallait la peine. I worked with three classes of students from Centre Collegial de Mont-Tremblant and they were JUST WONDERFUL. In fact, during the writing exercise portion of my workshop, I actually had to make them stop writing. (Breaks my heart to do that, but hey! there were still a few more pointers I wanted to share with them -- and stories, too!)

My invite came from English teacher Amanda Juby. Amanda and I go WAAAY back, to the days when she was working as an administrator for the Kativik School Board in Nunavik. So, part of the fun from today was meeting up with Amanda (we even got to go for lunch afterwards!!).

Back to the highlights of my work with the students. I tried a brand new writing exercise today. Because the students come from all over the Mont-Tremblant region and many of them live close to nature, I asked them to write about the place where they feel most at home. A student named Sales, who came to Canada from Algeria when he was four years old, wrote about his family's kitchen in Algeria. He remembered his "grandmother eating fish, and the view of the Mediterranean from the balcony." Thanks, Sales, for taking me there! (I told the students that is the goal of all good writing -- to take your reader somewhere with you.)

Later, I asked students to write about a moment of change in their lives. Sarah wrote about her complicated relationship with a parent. Sarah, I read enough of your piece to know you are a good writer with an important story to share. Go for it!

Anthony is studying Pure and Appled Sciences, but I think I got him interested in professional writing. He told me afterwards that while I was speaking, he thought to himself, "Oh, that's great!"

And a student named Ninon kept writing and writing -- it looked as if her pen was flying off the page. I must say that made me very happy.

In fact, my whole visit today made me super happy. Thanks to the teachers for inviting me, to Amanda Juby and Alexandre Laplante for getting things organized, and to my former colleague Johanne Courte, and new friend Genevieve Scott, for being part of the fun today! Special thanks to the students. I loved working with you!

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Time for a Writing Exercise!

I'm calling today's blog post "Time for a Writing Exercise" because usually when I say those words to a group of young people, they groan. (I think that's because most of them know writing is a lot of work, and they'd rather just sit back and listen to an author yak!). But yesterday, when I was in Quebec City for the 2016 Performing Arts Festival, and I announced, "Time for a writing exercise," I got quite a different reaction. In fact, Marjolie, who goes to Shawinigan High School and was the youngest participant in the session, called out, "Oh good!"

What made yesterday's writing workshop so much fun was that the dozen or so students I worked with all WANTED to be there. In fact, it was hard to get them to STOP WRITING!

I was the only fiction writer at the festival. There was also a trapeze artist named Hélèna Courteau, a singer, two drummers, two magicians (one named Carl Pellerin), a potter...  to name just a few of the other workshop leaders. So with that competition, I was pretty thrilled to get any students at all to sign up for my workshop!

When I talked about how important it is for writers to read -- A LOT and ALL THE TIME, a young man named Christopher, who attends St. Patrick's High School in Quebec City, talked about the effect reading has on him. He  told us, "When I read, I use it to gain ideas and inspiration to write." I was also impressed to learn that Christopher has been writing stories since he was in Secondary I and that he has a special interest in mythology.

I showed the students the journal I write in every single morning. Because they were curious to know the kinds of things I write about in my journal, I discussed observation, catharsis, intuition and reflection -- four styles of journal writing. I told them that intuitive writing is my favourite kind of journal writing. A student named Allyson, who also goes to St. Patrick's, told us she keeps a dream journal. Oh, did that ever make me happy! Writing about dreams is another great way to tap into imagination and inspiration.

I have to admit I was a little sad when the workshop ended. It was a real treat to work with such enthusiastic young people. Something tells me that in not too many years from now, I'll be reading some of THEIR books.

Special thanks to Aurian Haller, the consultant/musician/poet who organizes the Performing Arts Festival, and to Quebec High School for hosting the event. But thanks most of all to my workshop participants -- the grown-up ones too -- you were a DREAM for this writer!!

 

 

 

 

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Writing Lessons from a Stand-up Comedian

When I invited Toronto-based stand-up comedian Lauren Walsh-Greene to visit my Stuff of Nonsense Humanities class at Marianopolis College this week, I never expected I'd learn about writing. Afterall, I've been teaching about writing for 32 years. But, not only did Lauren keep us laughing, she had some really useful things to say about writing comedy that can be applied to all sorts of writing.
Which is why I'm going to use today's blog entry to share some of Lauren's pointers.

Lauren has been studying at Second City in Toronto. She told us her teachers say: "All comedy is born from truth, real  life, surprise or pain." I think that applies to all good writing. Lauren added that, "a lot of stand-up is about being vulnerable." In the set she performed for us, Lauren joked about what it's like to be a single woman in Toronto. She used humour to share the real-life challenges she faces as a young woman in a big city.

When she writes her routines, Lauren explained that she starts with a premise and then brainstorms. "Start with something you genuinely find funny," she told the class.

She also told the students something I'm always telling them -- to carry a notebook at all times, and in the case of comedy writing, to write down every joke they think of. I tell my students to write down ideas, observations, odd thoughts... the main thing is to WRITE A LOT and ALL THE TIME!

Finally, Lauren told us: "Be provocative; be brave!" I think we all sensed that Lauren lives in keeping with those words. So, thanks Lauren, for a great, inspiring visit. I told my other two classes all about you and shared your advice with them too. Keep writing and making us think with your stand-up routine!

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Lots of Characters at Westwood Senior High School

It's the last day before March break -- so you can't blame the students across Quebec for being excited. That helps explain the lively cast of characters I met this morning when I did writing workshops with three Grade Nine classes at Westwood Senior High School in Ste-Lazare.

So, let me tell you about some of the characters. Just before I started my first presentation, a guy named Jonah attempted to clobber a guy named Ryan using a vinyl pillow. It turns out there was a story behind this incident. (There is always a story!!) I thought Ryan was perfectly innocent, but according to Jonah, there was a prior attack for which he was seeking revenge. I also met a student named Elizabeth who was wearing cat ears attached to a headband. Elizabeth explained to us that her mom had made the ears -- most impressive! -- and that they are for a role-playing game that Elziabeth is into. Another interesting character was a young man named Brandon who showed genuine interest in learning about the semi-colon. (Let's just say that after 32 years in the classroom, it is unusual for me to meet a student with any interest whatsoever in punctuation!)

I worked with two teachers -- Miss Sanders and Mr. Grenier. Both teachers are keen on getting their students to write. When I was saying that reading great books inspires me to work harder, Mr. Grenier told us that he plays guitar -- and he remembers feeling similarly inspired after listening to great guitar performances.

I only had a one-hour session with each group, but I managed to cover most of my usual writing tips, and also to get the students writing. We talked about how writing can become a habit, and I mentioned some recent research I heard about that indicates you can form a habit if you keep it up for three weeks straight. I write three pages ever morning, but that is probably too much for most young people. But, as I told the students, even if you write a quarter of a page a day, or a couple of pages every weekend, well, that can turn into a habit too.

Wishing all of you a happy, healthy March break. Hey, there's good news -- we'll have plenty of time for our writing habits.

Special thanks to librarian Lynn Austin for the invite -- and the tea. I'll be back at Westwood Senior on March 19. I'm planning to stick around for lunch, so if any of you have stories you plan to work on, come show them to me!

 

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Back in the Basement!

When I was a kid, I used to play school in our basement. (That may help explain why I became a teacher!)

Well yesterday, about 45 years later, I taught school in the basement again. That’s because the same group of home-schooled kids who visited my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College on Monday dropped by my house for a special once-in-a-lifetime writing lesson!

We did a lot of stuff in a little time. I gave the kids writing tips, read them from my WIP (that's work-in-progress), and got them to do some writing.

We talked about how doing research is an important part of writing a book. I knew from reading Zahra's mom's blog that on Friday, Zahra and a group of friends started working on an ice house. I suggested that because Zahra knew a lot about ice houses, she might use her experience as research for a possible story. Zahra liked the idea. As she put it, "To write a story it helps if you lived the occasion." I asked Zahra to share some DETAILS (details are also important when you write a book). She told us that she and her friends used water Zahra's mom had frozen in milk cartons. "We ripped the cartons open," Zahra said.

Don't you just LOVE the word RIPPED in Zahra's sentence? As I told the kids, I love strong verbs. Ripped sounds way better than opened, don't you agree?

We also talked about how trouble helps move a story forward. I was impressed when Neval, who is eight years old, commented about the book My Friend Flicka that, "there's too much trouble in it."

I was also impressed that ALL FIVE of the kids reported that they WRITE EVERY SINGLE DAY. Julia, who is also eight said, "I write about what happened to me and what I'm feeling."

It happened to be Sarah's 10th birthday -- sorry we didn't sing to you, Sarah! I wanted to, but then I got too busy teaching you guys stuff. And I also want to report that Dunia, who is nine, had a look around my house and said, "This is a nice place!"

Here's to young writers. Glad I got to do another class in the basement!

 

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Oh Happy Day!

I took today's pic this afternoon during my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College. If Zahra, who is wearing the pink T-shirt, looks a little young to be in college, it's bcause she was one of five special guests -- a group of nine and ten-year-olds who came to pay us a visit. Class today started with a mini-lesson about using dialogue to add drama to a story, but then we moved to the really fun stuff: our young visitors responded to the picture book texts my students have been working on.

Not only did Zahra give my students useful feedback (such as "I think you could turn that story into something very great"), she also told us some awesome stories, including one about how a fox killed some of her family's beloved chickens.
I told my students not only to take notes on our visitors' comments, but also on the visitors themselves. Afterall, writers for children need to know their audience! And our visitors were pretty eager to observe teenagers. As Neval told me at the end of today's class, "I know what teenagers' favourite thing is: texting!" Neval's friend Dunia had a question for my class, "At what time do you finish your homework?" Theo, a lovely guy in my class, explained that, "it depends on the time of year."

You can expect to read more in this blog about our young visitors. That's because the five of them are coming to my house on Saturday afternoon for an extra-special private writing lesson. (I've agreed to do it because I'm friends with Zahra's mom Amanda.) Four of the kids are being home-schooled, so if there's time I have a few questions for them about what it's like to be home-schooled.

Now you know why I called this blog entry Oh Happy Day! Thanks to the young visitors for being such excellent listeners and critics. Thanks to my students for being your usual wonderful selves!!

 

 

 

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St. Thomas High School -- Part IV

I'm just home from my last of four visits this winter to St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. The girls in today's pic are Emelie (in grey) and Olivia (wearing a hoodie). I took their picture following a writing exercise I did in which I asked students to write about an object that was meaningful to them. Credit for this writing exercise goes to the girls' English teacher Miss Murphy. I had been telling the class the story of the monkey man charm I wear on a necklace around my neck, and Miss Murphy suggested I get the students to write about their own meaningful objects.

Must say the exercise worked! Olivia wrote about the ring she received as a gift from her best friend Clover. (I just love the name Clover -- don't you think I should use it in a book?) In the mini-paragraph Olivia wrote about the ring, she said, "I always touch it when I'm nervous and when I miss her." Emelie wrote about the silver cross she received as a gift from her grandmother in Greece. I got tingles when Emelie told me this about her grandmother: "she has memory loss so I'm not sure if she remembers me or not."

Like I was telling the classes today -- it isn't only people who have stories. Objects have stories to do. And if you ask me, it's our work, as human beings, to collect the stories that feel important to us and to pass them on.

I had lunch again in the library so that I could work with senior students who have the writing bug. One of the highlights of my day was reading dialogue by a student named Will. Will gave me his permission to quote it here. You need to know that in Will's story, a character named Mel has been shot and her friend Maksim is tending to her. "Tell me a secret," Mel says. "I love you," Maksim answers. To which Mel replies, "I said a secret." I don't know about you, but reading that gave me SHIVERS -- which is my body's signal that I am hearing or reading a really (excuse the adverb!) good story.

I hope to be back at St. Thomas this spring -- that's because I want to drop by some lunch time to celebrate the publication of Leggings Revolt, a book I could not have written without the terrific input of some students whom I worked with last year at the school -- and hey, one of those students was Will.

Thanks to the teachers -- Mr. Cloney, Miss Murphy, Mr. Canuel and Mr. Katz -- for sharing your classes with me, thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye for the invite, to librarian Mrs. Di Maulo for looking after me today, and to the students for being wonderful and working hard.

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St. Thomas High School -- Part III

You will, no doubt, be asking yourself what the point of this first pic is! I took the pic this morning, during my third day of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School. I was in the middle of telling Miss Murphy's grade nine class about how writers need to observe interesting details -- when I noticed that a student named Koby had a rather interesting eraser. (That eraser is the large blob in the pic.) Then, because part of Koby's pencilcase is mesh, I noticed he had two smaller chunks of the same eraser inside his pencilcase. At first, I thought maybe he had munched on the eraser, or that maybe Koby was the kind of person who does not approve of waste. But Koby told me that the little chunks of eraser come in handy. He also said, "I make a lot of mistakes in writing." Hey, Koby, maybe it'll cheer you up to know that I'm a professional writer -- and I make lots of mistakes too! I don't use an eraser very much these days, but I do hit the delete key on my computer a lot!!

When I was talking about how it helps to make writing a regular habit, I asked Mrs. Killorn (who was subbing for Miss Murphy) to tell us about her son Alex, who plays left wing for the Tampa Bay Lightning. "Does he only practice occasionally?" I asked Mrs. Killorn. She told us that Alex practises seven days a week. She also told us that he began playing hockey at age three. She said she knew he was going to be a serious hockey player when as a little boy, he played without any encouragement at all. So you see -- practise matters whether we are talking about writing -- or sports!

In this next pic, you'll see a group I am calling my LUNCH BUNCH. These are all students who turned up at the library to keep me company during senior lunch -- and to show me their work. Thanks, you guys, for totally making my day. I liked all of the stories I saw -- and I was impressed by how you all have a strong sense of voice in your writing. That's super important. And don't forget -- DEATH TO ADVERBS!!

I'm heading out now to teach Journalism and Writing for Children at Marianopolis College. You'd think I'd be tired -- but instead I feel energized after working with the classes (and my lunch bunch) at St. Thomas. I'll be back again on Monday for my final set of writing workshops there. Come for lunch and bring me your writing if you feel like it! Special thanks to teachers Miss Murphy, Mrs. Killorn, Mr. Katz and Mr. Cloney for sharing your classes with me -- thanks to librarian Carolyn Pye, for the invite and for feeding me delicious fruit -- and of course, thanks to the kids for being wonderful and for caring about writing and stories!!

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St. Thomas High School -- Part II

I'm just home from my second of four visits this winter to St. Thomas High School. In all, I'll be working with eight classes and I'll see each group twice -- which gives me time to talk about writing, tell some stories, and get the students writing, too!

In today's pic (sorry that it isn't quite right-side-up), I am chatting with Hailie. Like me, Hailie gets shivers when she hears a good story. Hailie also told me why she loves writing. She said, "I feel like I have so much to say and writing is the only way I can get it all out." I LOVED THAT -- BECAUSE I THINK IT'S HOW ALL WRITERS FEEL. Like we have no choice except to write! Hailie struck me as a natural storyteller. She explained how the other day she saw a picture of a blue house by the beach, and now she is inspired to write about a girl who lives in that house.

As I told the students today, writers need some talent. But I told them what my opa (the Dutch word for grandfather) told me -- that talent is only a small part of artistic success (Opa was a painter). He told me that what matters -- perhaps even more than talent -- is HARD WORK!!

With a few of today's groups, I tried a writing exercise in which the students had to come up with two characters who are opposites (we call that FOILS) and put them in an interestig situation ... and then produce some dialogue. A student named Sean was planning to write about himself and his younger brother, who is a bit of a troublemaker. I'd love to read a story about you two, Sean!

Later in the day, I was explaining that my mum is a Holocaust survivor. I asked the class, "How do you think she survived?" A student named Olivia said, "Did she have a talent?" I thought that was a great answer. In fact, it was my grandfather who had a special talent that kept his family alive.

At lunch time, I worked with two junior students -- Charlotte and Sarah -- who came to show me the stories they have been writing. Super work, you two! I gave them some basic feedback (DEATH TO ADVERBS! Show; don't tell!), and encouraged them to read each other's work. I'm hoping they will continue to exchange their writing now that they have met.

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Wednesday, and then on Monday next week. I'm planning to have my lunch at the library with the senior students on both those days -- so if any of you want some feedback on your writing, bring your lunch and come on by!

Special thanks to the students, their teachers and librarian Mrs. Di Maulo, who was filling in today for Mrs. Pye! See you guys on Wednesday!

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St. Thomas High School -- Part I

I love today's pic -- that's because you will notice that all the kids in the pic are WRITING! (There is nothing a writer and teacher likes more than seeing kids WRITING.)

Today's blog entry is called "St. Thomas High School -- Part I" because I am doing four visits there in the next few weeks. I get to work with four different classes and I'll see each group twice. I love that because it means I can get a lot done, and there is time for writing excercises!

I'm kind of a familiar face at St. Thomas. I've been visiting there for several years -- and in fact, one of my spring 2016 books, Leggings Revolt, was written with the help of a small focus group of students at St. Thomas. And guess what? The book is dedicated to my friend librarian Carolyn Pye. If she hadn't invited me to St. Thomas in the first place, well, Leggings Revolt might have been just a dream!

I had a whole sheet of notes to use for today's blog entry, but unfortunately, I think I left them on Miss Ditchburn's desk. Hey, if you're in her class, can you ask her to stash those notes safely until I come back next Monday?

Because I don't have my notes (boo!), I need to rely on my 55-year-old memory to write this blog entry. I showed all the classes today the journal that I write in every single day -- and a student in the first group (remind me of your name and I'll adjust this blog entry!!) noticed that my journal says "120 pages" on the cover. You know what? I never noticed that. And as I told the class, being OBSERVANT is an important trait in a writer.

I must say that a student named Alena in my second group stole my heart. That's because she got a little choked up when I told the story of my monkey-man necklace and how another prisoner gave it to my mom when she was in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp, during Wolrd War II.

I told the students that writers need to ask the question "What if?" in order to advance a story's plot. I explained that I can't turn off the "what if?" switch in my brain. Alena told me her parents sometimes get upset with her for asking "what if?" so much. So I told her to tell them to stop getting upset --  and simply to explain that she is a writer-in-training.

Today's pic was taken during my third session when I had two classes together in the library. To be honest, I thought it might be hard to manage such a large group, but they were wonderful. (As you can see from how hard they worked on my writing exercise!) You might be wondering what writing exercise worked so well... and it so happens that I INVENTED THE EXERCISE THIS MORNING IN MR. KATZ'S CLASS. I got the idea when we discussed the importance of trouble. I told the students that without trouble, you don't really have a story. So I asked them to remember a time they got into BIG trouble.

Last period, I asked the students why they think I bother writing in my journal every single day. A student named Anthony answered, "So it won't be as hard to write." You know what I LOVE about that answer? It's Anthony's understanding that writing IS HARD -- even if you practise a lot in a journal the way I do. But you know what else? I think I'm hooked on writing because it is hard. If it were easier for me, I might get tired of it.

So, I hope that even without my trusty notes, this blog entry came out okay. Special thanks to Mrs. Pye for inviting me back; to Mr. Katz, Mr. Cloney, Miss Murphy and Miss Ditchburn for sharing your students with me; to the students I worked with for being such a great audience; and also to some of the members of last year's focus group for coming by to say hello -- and admire the advanced reading copy of Leggings Revolt! Three cheers for all of you at St. Thomas High School!

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Happy Day in Beauport

I'm writing this blog entry from the train -- we're about to leave Quebec City. I was in town to work with three Grade Nine classes at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie in Beauport, a suburb of Queec City. It was my fourth visit to the school -- so I must say I feel very at home there!

My morning started with a laugh when a student named Emilie (tht's her in today's pic -- sorry that it's upside-down) asked, "Why do we need to write down your tips?" My first answer was BECAUSE, but then I added that I know that if I don't write things down, I forget all about them! And I do hope the students I met today will remember at least SOME of what we talked about.

Students in all three classes I visited are reading my historical YA novel, What World Is Left -- and so, though I talked about writing tips in general, I also told the students about the story behind the story they are studying. For instance, I told them that my mum, whose story inspired the novel, knew the real Anne Frank, but that my editor felt it would be a bad idea if the real Anne Frank appeared in my novel -- so we changed her name to Eva.

I explained that one of the reasons I like to do school visits is that I believe it's important to tell the truth about writing. When I was 14 and 15, the ages of the students I met today, I never met a professional writer. So when I do school visits, I try my best to tell students what I wish someone had told me way back then! Such as that WRITING IS FRUSTRATING and IT IS NORMAL TO BE DISAPPOINTED WITH YOUR WORK and SOMETIMES YOU FEEL LIKE GIVING UP!!

A student named Fréderique wanted to know if my mum ever read the book I based on her story. The answer was: not at first, but eventually. I had to explain to my mum that I was fictionalizing her story in order to make it appeal to young readers. I know my mum would have preferred if the girl in my story did not question her father's actions, but when I told her what I planned to do, my mum gave me her blessing. She said, "Do what you need to do to make it the best possible story. But I won't read it." Only, she did end up reading the book, and in fact, last week, she told me that she was going to start re-reading it all over again.

Elodie (of the upside-down pic) wondered whether writers need to be selfish. I must say that remark gave me pause. I told Elodie that writers need to be RUTHLESS. But you know what? It's my own mum, who was an amazing storyteller, who taught me that the story comes first!

With two of the groups, I did writing exercises to help them access old memories. "Our memories are stories asking to be told," I said to the students.

And a student named Gabriel helped me to translate the only writing rule I really teach (I'm not a rules-sort-of-person): "Show; don't tell." En français, it's "Montrez; pas dire."

So, many thanks to teachers Yves Lord and Maxime Jacques-Gagnon for sharing your students with me. I had a great day with all of you. Thanks for your interest in a book that is so close to my heart. And thanks to the students -- you guys were wonderful and I miss you already!

 

 

 

 

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The Moniques Take Kahnawake Survival School by Storm!

The Moniques are back in action! That means this Monique is teamed up again with her dear pal, photographer extraordinaire Monique Dykstra! This winter, we're working with four grade nine classes at Kahnawake Survival School, helping them to produce a chapter in this year's version of Quebec Roots. The project, which aims to help youngsters across the province tell their stories through words and photographs, is sponsored by the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation.

I'm always the one who goes first. That's because -- let's be honest -- the students tend to be a lot more interested in learning about photography than writing. So Monique Dykstra is their reward after they've worked with me!

One of our goals today was to help the students brainstorm to come up with a topic for their chapter. That exercise went super well. The students had several good ideas including the prevalence of guns in their community, as well as depression in their community. But the topic that was by far the most popular had to do with the creation of their school and how it was a response to Bill 101, which limited students' eligibility at English schools. Many of the students know people who were involved in the walk-out that led to the creation of Kahnawake Survival School nearly 40 years ago.

Though I have heard Monique Dysktra do her photography workshop before, I always learn something new when she works with young people. Today, for instance, she told them, "Building a photo is like building a house. You need to start with a good design." That made me think about writing too -- and how having an outline (or in building terms, a blueprint) can help a lot!

A student named Kiana wanted to have a look at my historical novel, What World Is Left -- and next thing I knew, she was busy reading it. Later she told me, "I look forward to the writing. I like writing -- but for myself." That is something for you to think about, Kiana -- are you ready to write for others? When I start out, I am always writing for myself -- but the longer I work on something, well, the more I want to share it!

A student named Gary made me laugh when he told me that when he heard we were coming this afternoon, he wanted to skip class! But luckily, he didn't because he said, "You got me excited about writing!" YAY, Gary! He also recommended a book called Spirit Bear by Ben Michaelsen. I'm going to order a copy!

And I was impressed by a student named Luna who took a creative approach to our topic. She suggested that someone could write about what the world would have been like if their school was never created. "Maybe I wouldn't have even been here," Luna said. I think that would make a great addition to the chapter, Luna -- and perhaps a perfect concluding piece.

So big thanks to the teachers -- Jocelyn Dockerty, Heather White, Krissy Goodleaf and Christie Chandler -- for sharing your kids with the Moniques -- and to the kids for being so positive and attentive. See you bright and early on February 3 -- until then, start interviewing folks about their memories of their old high school and the walk-out... and of course, take lots of photos!

 

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Oh Happy Day With Special Students at John Rennie High School

Oh no, another upside down photo! (I think that means it was taken upside down on my phone.)

I'm not going to fret about the upside down photo. (Or the fact that the roofer can't figure out why my roof is leaking!) Instead I'm going to tell you about my special morning with some very special students at John Rennie High School in Pointe-Claire.

This was my last school visit for 2015 -- and I'm considering it a gift, since it was not only a privilege, but also a lot of fun to work with this gang.

These were students with special needs. Some are in John Rennie's Resource Department; others are part of the LIFE (Learning Independence Through Functional Eduction) at Lindsay-Place High School.

I took a lot of notes -- so get ready for a lively blog entry.

When I told the students that trouble helps fuel a story, Hayley, a student with long red hair and a giant smile, called out, "I'm born with that!" It turns out Hayley loves to write and has been hard at work on a short story. Hayley, turn your trouble into art! (That's what I do.)

I gave the students several writing exercises. One excercise involved accessing a memory from long ago. A student named Tevin started his piece by writing, "Lost in bushes beside swimming pool." Well, that opening certainly has trouble in it -- and makes me want to know what happened next.

A student named Maria spent recess WRITING!! She remembered an incident at pre-school when she accidentally swallowed bubbles. Maria's story had a happy ending: "My teacher fed me some grapes and I think I felt better." Maria shared her story with the class and everyone loved the swallowing bubbles part -- not only is it trouble, but it's the kind of trouble that most of us never got into. So it's INTERESTING. INTERESTING TROUBLE is better than regular trouble!

A student named William remembered Miss M, his gym teacher at Forest Hill School. William wrote: "She would make me set up the gym and she would always make me happy. I still remember her smile." Hey, if any of you blog readers out there know Miss M, maybe you could send her the link to today's entry. I also suggested to William that he write a postcard to Miss M and let her know that he has not forgotten her. See, that's the power of words for you!

I ended my session with an observation exercise. I asked the students to explore the library and find something interesting to observe. Maria found nearly a dozen things! A student named Josh discovered yellow tape on some of the shelves. Mrs. Lukian, the John Rennie librarian, explained that she uses yellow tape to indicate where the reference books are. Nice observing work, Josh!

If it sounds like I had fun, it's because I did. Special thanks to the Pointe-Claire Library for making today's visit possible and to Pointe-Claire Library's children's librarian, Madame Blanchet, for coming to the workshop -- and for being fun. Thanks to Mrs. Lukian for hosting us in your library; thanks to Margo Edwards, the special ed. tech at John Rennie who helped organize my visit; and to your team. But thanks most of all to the students for listening, for doing such a great job on the exercises and for sharing your stories. You guys are my favourite Christmas present!!

 

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Day 2 at Horizon School -- Success!

Okay, the picture is WRONG-side-up, but my second day at Horizon School was ALL RIGHT. In fact, it was better than ALL RIGHT -- it was WONDERFUL (well, in my opinion, anyhow!).

Horizon is an alternative high school in Pointe-Claire. The classes are small and let's just say these students have plenty of stories. I've been working with junior and senior students at the school. Yesterday, I shared a lot of writing tips and did one writing exercise. Today was mostly about writing.

We started with a couple of playful exercises (I explained to the students that for me, writing is a constant mix of work and play -- I need to work hard, but I need to have fun with words too). We started by making a giant list of words that start with w. A lot of us included the word wonder, but I especially liked how one student came up with the word withdrawal. That led us to discuss how people don't just suffer from withdrawal when they try to get off drugs or alcohol; we can also experience withdrawal when we try to get over someone who has meant a lot to us.

The next playful exercise was writing with the non-dominant hand. (I've found this is a good warm-up activity in my home office too.) A student named Elizabeth came up with the line, "Smoke the devil's lettuce." I really like how she combined the devil and a vegetable. That inspried me to write a Ray Bradbury line on the board: "Creativity is continual surprise." Good work, Elizabeth, in the creativity department!

I asked a student named Arkela for her permission to share what she wrote with her left hand -- and she agreed -- so here goes: "I am writing with my left hand/ Although my writing is all messy and ugly/ I think I am doing an okay job." Arkela seemed surprised when I told her I thought what she had written was beautiful. I tried to explain that, for me, her words are very symbolic. Maybe that's all any of us can ask for -- to think we are doing an okay job.

I'm not supposed to have favourites in a class, but a guy named Darren wrote some amazing stuff. And a guy named Tazz, who was born in Nunavik, also earned a special spot in my heart when I asked him about his experience up north and he said, "Ain't about that life." I wrote that on the board and told Tazz it would make a great book title. So, Tazz, when are you gonna get started on that book?

Today, the senior students' teacher, Miss Pion, was with us. Miss Pion and I had a short, but interesting talk about different approaches to working with students who have gone through tough times. Miss Pion says she has found that it's important for her students to take a break from the drama. Or as she put it, "I choose not to bathe in problems that are happening here, and to go somewhere else for fifteen minutes." Which led us to talk about writing as both a form of escape, as well as a way of turning our own difficulties into something beautiful we can share with others.

So... I must say the students (and teachers!) at Horizon gave me a lot to think about. Hopefully, I gave you guys some ideas for your own stories and creative projects. Special thanks to Madame Dubreuil from the Pointe-Claire Library, who not only helped to make my visits to Horizon possible, but who attended both workshops and did ALL the exercises.

On the home front, my roof is leaking and so far, the roofer has not been able to locate the problem. But hey, writing is a mix of work and play -- and living is a mix of problems and sweet moments. Overall, I'd say my visit to Horizon had more sweeet moments than problems. Thanks to the kids who participated. NOW GO WRITE!!!

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Expanding My Horizon(s)

I am just home from my first of two mornings at Horizon High School -- an alternative high school in Pointe-Claire. I was there to do a writing workshop with a group of students from grades eight to eleven. I must admit some of them were a bit of a handful -- and two students didn't make it through my entire session. (I'm still hoping they might give the workshop another go tomorrow, but who knows?)

I started with my usual writing tips and we ended with a writing exercise. Tomorrow, I hope to focus more on writing. Today, a student named Taz asked, "Does it [meaning whatever the students might write] have to be an appropriate story?" My answer was ABSOLUTELY NOT. I don't think writers should worry about being appropriate. I think we need to worry about WRITING WHAT MATTERS. (Even as the author of many books, I still need to remind myself that this, for me, is what writing is all about: finding stories that matter to me, and telling them in a way that will make them matter to my readers.)

A student named Hayden told me, "I'd rather read than write." I shared my view that if a person enjoys reading (Hey, Hayden -- I hope you noticed that I did not say "if a person loves reading"), then that person usually also has a gift for writing. That's because reading and writing are so deeply connected. Sometimes, for me anyhow, they feel like one activity.

To be honest, it's a little discouraging when students are not open to what I have to share -- so I was disappointed to lose two of them this morning -- but I did cheer up when I read the work that some of the students did during the writing exercise. One student wrote about an old memory having to do with sports and I was deeply moved by his words; another described her memory of having an allergy attack (I suggested she ask the question "What if?" in order to develop her piece); and another student wrote about her preference for drawing over writing (I suggested maybe she could write about her earliest memory of drawing -- and that seemed to get her pen moving on paper). Hey, you can see on of this student's drawings in today's pic!

So... all this to say, it was a special morning for me. Not always easy, but always interesting. And hey, I'd take interesting over easy any day.

Special thanks to the junior students' English teacher Qaadira Decoteau for your help and for sharing some of your students with me. And thanks to the Pointe-Claire Library for making these workshops possible -- and to librarian Marie-Andrée Dubreuil who attended the workshop too. And finally, thanks to the students. Get ready for more Monique tomorrow morning!

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A Secret About School Visits: Thursday at Lindsay Place

Here's my secret about school visits: I get invited to schools to help inspire students to write... but guess what? I'm the one who ends up getting inspired!! That's what happened to me this morning when I worked with three of Mrs. Russell's classes at Lindsay Place High School in Pointe-Claire.

I worked with grade seven and eight students. Mrs. Russell's grade seven groups are doing a unit on prejudice, and some of the students have read (or will be reading) my historical novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp. With all three groups, I started by sharing some tips about writing, but then I moved on to talk about my mum and the research that went into writing What World Is Left.

I had a great time with all three groups. The first group was the smallest and included many students who love writing; the second group was larger, also focused and bright; and the third group (they were the grade eights) had so many great questions that Mrs. Russell worried she might get a detention if she let them stay any later than she did!

Today's pic was taken at the end of my last presentation. The blonde girl next to me is Angelica and I got the impression she is very angelic -- which makes me think I should include an angelic-looking girl named Angelica in my next book! (Only I might make MY Angelica a bit of a trouble-maker, which Mrs. Russell assured me the real-life Angelica is NOT!). On my other side is a student named Melissa. I loved her answer when I asked the students, "What do you think I did yesterday when I re-read the writing I had done in the morning and found it crappy?" Are you ready for Melissa's brilliant answer? She said, "You see where it went wonky and then you work backward to see where you can fix it up." Right on, Melissa! Plus, I loved how you used the word WONKY -- which definitely describes how writers often feel about their writing!

I told all three groups that one of the reasons I do school visits is because when I was in grades seven and eight, I never had a chance to meet a professional writer. So, during my visits, I try to tell students the things I wish someone had told me long ago -- such as that writing is hard, and that we are seldom satisfied with our work, and that our first drafts are total disasters!

So, many, many thanks to the students I worked with this morning. Like I said, you inspired me with your energy and questions (and interesting body language such as sharpening a pencil!!). Thanks too, to Mrs. Russell for doing such a great job with your classes, and to librarian Betty Dunning for arranging the visit.

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Writing Lessons From a Dear Visual Artist Friend

Yesterday, a friend and I got a private showing of Thomas Kneubuhler's exhibit, Land Claim. Thomas came to meet us at Galerie B-312 in the Belgo Building downtown, where his work is being displayed. (He has a second exhibit going on now in Montreal too. More about that later.)

Thomas and I became friends when we traveled together to Nunavik for a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Quebec Roots. What I never expected is that I would learn about writing from a visual artist! And it happened again yesterday when the three of us were chatting while we looked at the photos and videos that were part of Thomas's show.

That was when I whipped out a sheet of paper and a pen from my purse (Writing Tip #1: Always have paper and a pen handy!). Thomas was explaining to my friend how he comes up with a subject for a visual art project. What he said applies to writing too -- and how we need to feel inspired in order to begin a project -- and stick with it! "There's usually a trigger," Thomas said. He explained that the trigger for Land Claim came when he heard about Raglan Mine, an iron mine in Nunavik, and learned that the company's head office is located in Switzerland, where Thomas was born. Thomas added that a subject may be "something where you have access that no one else does, something that is personal and that you have a personal connection to." Thomas also explained that there's a great deal of research behind his projects (same is true for writing stories, of course). Finally, Thomas talked about the effort that goes into his art. He never just snaps a photo or turns on his video recorder. Here's how Thomas put it: "It's often very hard work and it involves a lot of things!"

Thomas's show at Galerie B-312 runs until Dec. 19. Same for his show at Patrick Mikhail Gallery. If you're in Montreal, check them out! (I've included a link to his website at the top of this blog post -- you'll find the addresses and times for the exhibits there.) Hey Thomas -- thanks for the private tour -- and the inspiration!!

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My Mom and I Travel to Dumas, Texas

Okay, it's a slight exaggeration to say that my mom and I traveled today to Dumas, Texas -- but we were certainly there, and we certainly connected with about 200 students at Dumas Intermediate School, thanks to Skype and the miracles of modern technology.

This was "our" third "visit" to Dumas Intermediate. Our is the right word because Cathy Craigmiles, the school librarian, asked me to speak about my historical YA Novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mom's experience as a prisoner in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp -- and so I went to my parents' house to do the visit, which meant that the students could have a chance to meet my mom too.

I worked with two groups of Grade Six students -- and they were wonderful. A virtual visit can usually never compare with a real-life one, so maybe it was the students (they were really engaged and focused), or the material, or the fact that my mom made a guest appearance (so did my dad, but my mom is the real star of today's blog entry), but today's visit felt pretty wonderful. Most of the students were 11 or 12 years old, which made the experience especially moving for me since my mom was 12 when she was rounded up by the Nazis and shipped to Theresienstadt.

I could not resist sharing some writing tips, but mostly the students wanted to know more about the story behind my book. We talked about propaganda and I explained how my opa (the Dutch word for grandfather) was forced by the Nazis to create propaganda art. As an author, I am especially interested in "grey" areas because, to me, the world is never black and white. My opa could not have been glad to do what the Nazis forced him to do, and yet he must have known that his actions might help keep him and his family (including me) alive.

My mother is 86 (and-a-half), quite deaf and fragile, but she was well enough to say hello at the end of both sessions -- and to answer a few questions. Luckily for us, the students had amazing, thoughtful, deep questoins.

A student named Keaton wanted to know what the scariest part of my mom's experience was. She told him it was the transports -- never knowing if she would be on the list of prisoners who would be transported to Auschwitz.

A student named Andrea asked about my mom's immediate post-war experience, and you know what? My mom ended up telling a little story I had never heard before. She told Andrea, "I went back to Holland. I remember the first time I saw a slice of white bread. It was so bright it hurt my eyes." Hey, Andrea, good interviewing work!

Raigan wanted to know if, after the war, my mom ever saw anyone she knew from Theresientadt. I helped my mom with the answer to this question -- I told the students about an old friend of my grandmother's -- this woman had lost her husband before the war, and her only son was sent to Auschwitz where he was murdered, and yet she had it in her to be loving to my mother... and, in 1960, when I was born, the woman (who by then was living in New York) took the Greyhound bus to Montreal so she could come in person to meet my mother's first daughter -- me!

I told the students how, when I hear something beautiful, the insides of elbows tingle. And you know that happened to me today when, after my first session, my dad was chatting with Mrs. Craigmiles and he asked her, "How come your students are so interested in the Holocaust?" -- and she answered, "They've been studying it for the last six weeks." All I can say to that is -- wow, and thank you, and that gives me hope for the future.

I think it's only fitting to close today's blog entry with my mom's words. When we were about to say good-bye to the kids at Dumas Intermediate, I asked her what advice she could offer young people who may be experiencing their own hardships. She told them, "Food they can take away. But hope is in you. Hope is the most valuable thing. Nobody can take it away."

So many many many thanks to my young friends in Dumas -- for being great listeners, for opening your hearts to stories, and for caring about other people's experiences. May you open your hands to catch many stories, and may you always have hope. Thanks, too, to Mrs. Craigmiles, who has become my friend over the years.

 

 

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Heroes in My Backyard: Virtual Visit to Laurentian Regional High School

I spent part of today with a group of keen, talented Grade 11 students from Laurentian Regional High School in Lachute, and their English teacher Mrs. Vero. We are working together on a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Heroes in My Backyard. The goal of the project is for students to make a one-minute film related to the subject of war and heroes -- and I'm helping with the script.

I had two one-hour sessions with the students -- one this morning with Mrs. Vero present, and one in the afternoon with just the students. And though you might think it would be hard to do a virtual brainstorming and writing workshop, thanks to the wonders of Skype, it worked!

This morning, I shared a bunch of writing tips -- such as that it's important to make writing a habit, that reading is every bit as important as writing, and that revising is essential. This afternoon we spent our time bouncing around ideas for a possible narrator. We also have a possible title for the project. It's "Dear Future" and it was invented by a student named Cassandra. Another student, Liane, turns out to already be a talented filmmaker. A short film she posted on line entitled "NUmbers" has already had 36,000 hits! We talked about using a female narrator for the film, and Liane suggested our narrator might be a girl who becomes a drummer for the army. Since our story is set in the past, the girl would have had to pose as a boy. Which makes for all kinds of interesting story possibilities!

As yoy can probably tell, I am starting to get excited about this project. What's especially fun is the fact that it's a group collaboration. I asked the students to do a short writing exercise in which they imagined being the girl drummer. They came up with some beautiful material. Haily wrote about how the girl traveled "through nights and into city" -- which I found beautiful and poetic. Brianna pictured a scene at a loading dock, where her narrator "tastes the salt of her tears" and Brad imagined gunfire "choking" his narrator's lungs.

So... for now, we're just tossing around ideas. Playing. For me, writing is a curious mix of work and play. Thanks to the students I worked with today for reminding me of the playful part -- and for working hard. I look forward to reading more of your work and to our film project!

 

 

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Holocaust Stories

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"Every Holocaust story is amazing," Dana Bell told me yesterday. That's Dana is the pic that goes with this blog entry. We shared a table at yesterday's Holocaust Survivor Memoirs event organized by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. I must admit that when I first sat down next to Dana, she was deep in serious conversation with someone else and I didn't expect that we would hit it off -- but you know, sometimes life brings happy surprises, because by the end of the afternoon, Dana and I were chatting like old friends. What a fun, inspiring and wise woman!

Dana is the author of Danusia: The Story of a Child Survivor. It took Dana nine years to write this book and in the end, she decided to self-publish it. (Which led us to a interesting discussion about the world of self-publishing). In her book, Dana describes what happened to her and her family after they were deported to Siberia. Dana was only two years old at the time.

Dana told me that for her, the biggest compliment is when her readers say, "When I read your book, I heard your voice in the room with me." I consider that high praise. As I tell my students, one of the hardest and certainly one of the most important parts of writing is finding your voice. For me, I always feel like my stories begin to come alive when I hear my narrators' voices in my head.

Like me, Dana enjoys doing school visits. She also speaks to visitors and classes of students at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. I hope to catch her in action one of these days. In the mean time, I look forward to reading her book. And I couldn't agree more with Dana -- every Holocaust story is amazing.

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Reporting in: Day 3 at the MASC Young Authors Conference

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Meet Alan! That's him in today’s pic. Alan was in my last workshop today on the final day of the MASC Young Authors Conference at Ottawa’s Aviation Museum. As you may already have figured out, Alan collects bookmarks! Usually, I only hand out one bookmark per student, but Alan collected a few extra, and when I was discussing examples of body language I happened to catch him in the act – making a fan out of my bookmarks. I decided it was photo-worthy.

So I had two more great groups of students today. In her introduction this morning, MASC’s Faith Seltzer told the students: “Pick the authors’ and illustrators’ brains and I’ll let you in on a secret: they’ll be picking your brains too!”

That’s definitely the truth!

In today’s entry, I’ll tell you about some excellent brains I picked! I learned that a student named Aashaz has an indoor rink in his basement. Though it’s made of plastic, Aashaz and his brother skate on it while wearing real skates! (I had never heard of that before, and I think it’s super-interesting and belongs in a book. Don’t you agree?)

This week I began experimenting with a new writing exercise. I asked students to use any of their five senses to observe something interesting in our room, but I told them that I wanted their observations to evoke emotion. Here’s what a student named Moumita came up with – she saw one lone marker on a shelf, and for her, it represented “one lonely person at school.” Nice work, Moumita!

If you’ve been following my blog over the last few days, you’ll know I had an amazing time at the MASC Young Authors Conference. I got to hang out with great kids, and great authors, and work with a great team from MASC and their out-of-this world volunteers. Hey, how am I going to get back to real life tomorrow?

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