monique polak

Monique Polak's Books


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

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


"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


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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