monique polak

Monique Polak's Books


Saturday Morning With Some Girl Guides

The title of today's blog post is "Saturday Morning With Some Girl Guides." You are probably wondering why I'm hanging out with Girl Guides on a Saturday morning -- and not sleeping in! Espeically because we've had a lot of snow and it was a perfect day for sleeping in -- and hibernating!!

But if you look at the top left corner of today's pic, you'll see Heidi Shapiro, whom I taught more than 20 years ago at Marianopolis College. Heidi recently got in touch to tell me she helps run a Girl Guide troop, and that her fourteen-year-old daughter Kaelyn, an aspiring writer, is a member. Also, several of the girls had read my historical novel, The Taste of Rain, which is set in China and tells the story of a group of kids who, during the wartime, found the strength to survive great difficulties by adhering to the Girl Guide code.

When I was telling the girls that rewriting is the secret to writing well, I asked them whether, now that I've published 29 books, my first drafts are any good. Sarah answered, "Maybe. Maybe not." I like the sound of those two sentences,don't you? And then I told Sarah, "Not!" I went on to explain that this is perhaps the most important writing tip I can share: that first drafts are always awful -- even after you publish many books! Writing is just as hard for me now as it was for me when I was the age of the girls I spoke to this morning.

When I asked the girls whether they enjoy reading, Coralie made a face that seemd to say "so so." When I asked her about her experience reading, Coralie talked about a book her teacher had been reading in class, but which Coralie did not enjoy. I told Coralie to talk to her friends to get book recommendations. That's what I do! There is a book for every reader -- we just need to find it! And later, I must say I was pleased when Coralie showed me her copy of The Taste of Rain. It turns out I had inscribed it -- and that I'd met Coralie's mom at a Girl Guide event last year. It also turns out that Coralie goes to Lauren Hill Academy because in my inscription, I'd asked her to say hello to my friend Mr. Adams, who teaches there -- and Coralie told me she'd done it. It's a little story, but it makes me happy! (Also the real Mr. Adams is a character in my book 121 Express -- but that's jsut a side note.)

Karina asked an excellent question: "Did you ever stop writing a book because you weren't interested in it anymore?" You know, no one ever asked me that before. And I said the answer was yes. It's okay to put projects aside, but it's also important to stick with a project -- and it's normal to sometimes feel fed up with a project. Now I wish I'd told the girls something author Tamora Pierce once told me, "No word a writer writes is ever wasted." I SO LOVE THAT. AND IT IS SO TRUE.

I had to laugh when Emma Rose asked me, "How is it after 29 books, you still have ideas?" So I told her, "It's because I'm an IDEA FACTORY." I laugh even writing those words now. I hope you are an idea factory too. All it takes is a notebook, a pen, and the desire to pay attention to the world around you. Stories are everywhere. It's up to us to find them!

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In Which I Travel to Beauport, Quebec -- Virtually

For many years, I have visited Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie in Beauport, Quebec to work with Mr. Lord's students. Today, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the students and I settled for a virtual visit. When Mr. Lord and I were reviewing our plans yesterday, I told him that if he felt the virtual visit wasn't working, he could fire me! But guess what? He didn't!

I worked with Mr. Lord's two Secondary Three "Langues-Etudes" students. I told the students I'm a little jealous of them because though I speak French well, when I try to write in French, I make many errors. These young people are already more bilingual than me!I

I'm going to share a few highlights of today's visit. When I told the students in the first class that writers need to be curious, a student named Félix said, "I am curious about sports. I love to learn the history of sports like basketball." I told Félix there's a huge demand for kids' books about team sports, including basketball -- and that maybe he should write one! Afterwards, when I was explaining that writers hate their first drafts, I caught a student named Eve nodding -- which made me happy because her nod indicated she knows the feeling. And as I explained, hating your first draft is a sign that you are meant to be a writer! I also liked when, while I was talking about finding the story you need to tell, a student named Emryck said, "My life is a story. Like everybody else's." I told Emryck that I love "My Life is a Story" for a book title. Don't you agree?

The second group was special because they were all young women -- so I threw in a little life advice along with my writing tips. I shared my view that it's important for women to be able to earn a living -- so they can always be independent. Even if they choose one day to stay home to raise kids, I think it's important to know they can earn a living if they have to. My favourite moment with this group was when I used the chat function to ask them, "Are you curious? Do you know the smell of trouble and are you able to keep rewriting even when you think you can't do it anymore?" AND GUESS WHAT HAPPENED? TWELVE people (including Mr. Lord) answered yes. The others were: Coraline, Maria, Rosalie, Floriane, Jade, Emilie, Lena, Beatrice, Maxim, Léonie and Andréanne. For me, answering yes to those questions means these people have what it takes to become writers. So that's a lot of writers in one classroom!

Hopefully, I'll be back in person next year in Beauport. If I am back, I hope the students I met today will come to say hello (or bonjour) -- maybe when I am eating lunch in the school cafeteria. Thanks to Mr. Lord for arranging today's visit -- and for not firing me!! Thanks also to the students. As we say in English, "You made my day!" Stay safe, stay healthy, read and write. See you next year!



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Working with Young Writers at Laval Junior Academy

I bet you think the kids' in today's pics are clapping because I did such a good job during my writing workshop! But that isn't why! That picture was taken at the start of this morning's workshops (before I had a chance to do a good job!!) when Ms. Milea, the students' English teacher, asked me whether I'd gone for my usual morning run. It's minus 10 in Montreal today -- I think it's the coldest day we've had so far this season -- so the class clapped for my bravery!! But as you can tell from my smile, I did enjoy that clapping!!

So onto some thoughts and observations related to today's workshops.

This was my second session with two Grade Seven groups, which let me concentrate more on THEIR stories! I tested out a new writing-about-the-pandemic-exercise -- I asked students to write about a memory associated with a pandemic birthday. For those of us born between March 13 and December 15, we've had a pandemic birthday. But even winter babies have stories to tell about other people's birthdays. How, for instance, did you celebrate a sibling's birthday, or your best friend's birthday, or a grandparent's birthday?

A student named Angie came up with a super idea. "What if," she said (note that WHAT IF is my favourite question in the world) "you have a party and the police come?" Ah ha! Excellent work, Angie. I like that this idea is FULL OF TROUBLE. You may remember my view that TROUBLE IS LIKE FUEL. TROUBLE MOVES A STORY FORWARD!

Ms. Milea talked about how the students were a little put off by all the comments and corrections she had made on their English assignments. To cheer them up, I shared the story of how my old boxing coach never let me give up, even when I told him I was too tired to punch hard. Ms. Milea admitted that there's an upside to students being dissatisfied with their grades: "I love it when they are mad they didn't get the grade they wanted." Because of course, the fact that we are edited -- and it's important to realize that every writer needs an editor -- motivates us to do a better job!

My second workshop was with a smaller group -- and there was more time to share stories. Ms. Milea even told us about HER pandemic birthday -- when her dog went chasing a doe! She told us, "I saw a fluffy tail in the bushes, and then a mass of fur leapt out." See how the use of details takes us into the story!

Joshua shared his pandemic birthday story too. I loved how he started telling me the story, by saying, "Let's fast forward five hours." Joshua, I think you should try to keep that line in the written version! In Joshua's story, he stays up until 4 AM the morning of his birthday, and later that afternoon, some friends from church pass by his house. One of his friends shares his own hockey cards with Joshua -- which is pretty special. I advised Joshua to add some TROUBLE to his story. WHAT IF Joshua's parents get upset with him for staying up so late? What if the friend wants his hockey cards back?!

My last reader was Michael, who gave me permission to share the title of the book he's been working on: "The Forest of Madagascar." I love the sound of that title, don't you? I especially love the word Madagascar. Neither Michael nor I have ever been there, but Michael, it might be worth doing some Googling over the holidays to see if you can add some real life details about Madagascar to your book! I loved that Michael's story has an animal high school, that he included the theme of bullying, and that he used dialogue. One of the bullies says, "Are you going to cry to your daddy now?" I love that line because it's just the sort of thing a bully would say. I shared a bit of well-known writing advice with Michael -- that he should SHOW; NOT TELL. For instance, instead of telling us that a character is "mean and scary," why not find a way to SHOW IT? (like he showed us in with the dialogue I just mentioned).

So that's it for my school visits for 2020! Thanks to Ms. Milea for arranging my visits to LJA -- and for making the Zooms fun. I'm planning to spend my holidays WRITING and also READING. I hope those two items will be on your agenda too. Happy holidays to all! Stay safe -- and don't forget to take notes for your future books!

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Meet My Friend, Author Mary McCown

Today I want to introduce you to my friend, Quebec City journalist and author Mary McCown, who just released her first kids’ book, Wigglesworth in Lutinland (Austin Macauley Publishers). * (That's Mary's lovely face in today's pic.)

Wigglesworth in Lutinland is a Christmas story, which I just started reading this week. I laughed out loud while reading Chapter One when I got to the cookie recipe that called for one cup of salt. Poor Santa!

I met Mary a couple of years ago when I was doing a writing workshop at the Morrin Centre in Quebec City. She covered my presentation for the city’s English newspaper, The Chronicle Telegraph. Since then, Mary and her family have moved to St-Stanislas-de-Champlain, which is about an hour away from Quebec City. Their household has increased in size because they’ve been joined by four dogs, eight chickens and four goats!

Mary was born in Alabama. She’s been in the Quebec City area since 2016; before that she and her husband lived in Manitoba. Mary knew little French when she first came to Canada. That experience of struggling to learn a new language informs Wigglesworth’s story. He’s an American elf who accidentally lands in Quebec City. Like Mary, he needs to learn French if he’s going to make friends and start a new life for himself.

Mary says that what learning French as an adult taught her is that, “Mistakes are good.” There’s a similar message in her book. “The first two years in Quebec, I felt like someone ripped my personality out of me. I was afraid to speak. Now I hear my own mistakes and I think they’re funny. When I laugh, everyone relaxes around me!” Mary told me.

I asked Mary to share a writing tip. Here’s what she came up with – and what I’m delighted to pass on to you: “For me, I realized if I tried too hard to make a perfect story, I’d go nowhere. So I sort of just had fun with it. Then you clean it up later. Also, I sleep with a notebook by my bed.”

Over the years, Mary and I have discovered we have a lot in common. We both jog, and we both love food, and laughing and having fun with stories. But now I know we have something else in common – I also keep a notebook by my bed! I hope you do too! It’s great for writing down ideas that come in dreams, or when we are falling asleep or waking up.

I’m glad you got to meet Mary too. Perhaps you’ll meet Wigglesworth next!

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Fourth Virtual Visit to Forest Hill Senior

We've had snow today in Montreal, so it was actually a perfect day for a Zoom visit -- otherwise, I'd have been nervous making the drive to St. Lazare to work with students at Forest Hill Senior Elementary School. This was my last of four visits there, and though the visits were virtual, I am starting to feel like I belong at FHSES!

In today's pic, you see the last group I worked with -- Ms. Lindsey's Grade Sixes. When I asked if they had paper for taking notes, they waved their sheets in response! Which made me laugh -- and also made me reach for my camera so I could capture the moment for you, dear blog reader!

I started the day with Ms. Black's Grade Fives. Two students were participating from home -- Mia and Bella. I was impressed by this pair because they were ready with pen and paper. The other students were in Ms. Black's classroom -- they had to go and grab writing supplies. It's the first time I saw a class with Christmas lights, and when I asked about the decorations, I learned they are what Ms. Black described as "permanent fixtures." I'm all for bright lights -- especially this time of year, and especially this year!

Something that made me laugh in that class was that every time I introduced a new writing tip, say Tip #2, a student would flash the appropriate number of fingers in front of the screen. That turned out to be Luca, whom I credited for "special effects."

My second group was Madame Jessica's Grade Five class. Here, I met a student named Sidney who has an interesting story that he gave me permission to share in today's blog. Sidney was attending class from home -- that's because someone on his bus tested positive for COVID-19. I asked Sidney if he was feeling nervous, but he told me, "I'm not nervous. I feel good. And it's comfortable at home." I learned more about Sidney when I heard a dog  barking (which prompted me to ask, "Is that a dog or a relative?"). That's how we all got to meet Baloo, Sidney's toy poodle. If you've been reading my blog lately, you'll know I am getting more and more interested in pandemic stories. Sidney, I think you should write yours -- about a boy who has to stay home while his classmates are at school, and don't forget to give your character a dog!

I was telling the class how my mum, who survived the Holocaust, always said there was only one thing the Nazis could not take away from the people who, like her, were imprisoned in concentration camps. I gave the students a moment to guess the thing my mom was talking about. No one ever figures out the answer -- but a student named Jacob got it. He called out, "Hope!"

I'll end today's blog with my favourite question of the day. A student named Beatrice wanted to know, "Do you write your characters before you write your books?" Beatrice, this was a sophisticated question for a student in Grade Five. My answer is that I usually get to know my characters WHILE i'm wriitng my books, but I think it's a better idea to know your characters in advance. So maybe, Beatrice, I will let your question guide me when I start my next book -- hopefully next week!

Special thank to librarian Ms. Hausen for arranging all my visit to FHSES; thanks to the teachers Ms. Black, Madame Jessica and Ms. Lindsey, for sharing your students with me today, and for being so brave in your classrooms. And thanks to the students for a wonderful grand finale to this season's visits to your school! Now go write!!

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Writers Writing at Laval Junior Academy

What I love about today's pic is that it depicts WRITERS WRITING. Which is exactly what writers need to do to keep their writing muscles limber!

Even though I've been teaching my own students at Marianopolis College on-line since August, this was the first time I had students do a writing exercise while we were "Zooming." And it worked! Yay to Ms. Milea's Grade Seven English class for helping me with this experiment. And I just want to mention that Ms. Milea told us she's been working on a final paper for a university course she is taking, and last night, her professor told Ms. Milea and the other students about how she (the professor) once had to rewrite a paper at the very last minute. See, that story goes to show that WE ALL HAVE TO REWRITE. There is, I think, no good writing that has not been rewritten a lot!!

Back to today's writing exercise -- I asked Ms. Milea's students to remember the most challenging moment they have had since the pandemic began. I warned them that doing this memory exercise could be painful, but that we writers try not to be afraid of pain -- because it can often lead us to the heart of a story. Then I did a little bit of abracadabra stuff to activate the students' memories. I think my abracadabra also worked!

Once the writing portion of our workshop was over, a few brave students shared their work with their classmates, Ms. Milea and me. And I got permission to share a few examples here.

Lilly wrote about having a meltdown when she was trying to do her homework. She wrote, "I started to cry. My dad started to yell." Then Lilly went to hide in the bathroom. "The floor," she wrote, "was cold." Ohhh, do I ever love that story. I love it because it's honest and it's as if I can feel the cold bathroom floor too. Now that's a sign of good writing!

Gypsy's piece took the form of a conversation between parents who disagree about how much information to give their kids about the pandemic. In Gypsy's dialogue, the mom says, "You're overstressing them. They're too young to know!" Excellent dialogue, Gypsy. I bet a lot of parents around the world have been having similar conversations. I suggested Gypsy add some sensory detail. Did the parents raise their voices? Perhaps the walls shook or the cat ran under the couch! Little interesting details would make this dialogue come even more to life.

Julia-Rose wrote about her pandemic birthday and how she missed her friends: "The pandemic had locked me away from them." I love the use of the words "locked me away." Powerful and poetic! I think pandemic birthday stories are super interesting. If your birthday was between March and December, you have a pandemic birthday to write about too!

I'll be back at Laval Junior Academy next Tuesday for my last of four writing workshops. I'm already looking forward to hearing or reading hte students' stories. Great work, guys! And thanks, Ms. Milea, who knows how to get great work out of her students!


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Another Day, Another Zoom! Back at Forest Hill Senior!

The only time I left my house was early this morning to go for a run, but it was still a busy day! That's because I had two Zoom visits with six Grade Six classes from Forest Hill Senior in St. Lazare. That's me on the screen in today's pic, telling the kids the things I wish someone had told me about writing when I was their age.

Maybe today, I'll tell you what some of those things are -- the stuff I needed to know about writing when I was in Grade Six. One is: it's a great sign if you hate your first draft! That's what a first draft is supposed to be -- hateful and no good at all! When I was a kid, I used to think that because my first drafts were so horrible it meant I was a terrible writer. In fact, what it meant was that I had the makings of a writer already -- because I was beginning to understand the absolute necessity of rewriting. Another thing I wish I'd known is: writers generally need to do research before writing a book. Because in order to write a book, you need to know a thing or two about something!

Now I'll share a few highlights from today's visits.

In the morning, one of the classes was attending by Zoom -- so on my screen, I saw about a dozen students in their own homes. At one point, a student named Gabriel disappeared! When I called out, "Gabriel? Where did you go?" he answered back, "I'm writing!" -- which of course, I took as excellent news!

I was also happy when a student named Juliette told us, "I usually get my ideas when I dream." That happens to me sometimes too, and Juliette's comment gave me an opportunity to tell students to jot down their dreams -- that dreams can be an important source of inspiration.

Jayden had a great question, "When you write, do you sometimes mess up?" That was an easy one for me to answer, so I told him, "All the time!" Messing up at stuff, including writing, is how we get better at it!

We talked about how trouble fuels a story, helping it to move forward. At the end of my first workshop, one of the teachers, Madame Messier, told her students, "We can see our problems as treasures that will become fascinating books!" Exactement! (I put that in French because Madame Messier is a French teacher, and what she said to the students was in French -- I just translated it here for my English-speaking blog readers.)

The kids I worked with in the afternoon stayed attentive till the last minute -- which is a feat on a busy school day this time of year. Annabelle told us, "Usually when I get home, I write for a bit!" Now that is news I like to hear!

I'll end today's blog with another funny moment. I was telling the students about my book 121 Express, which is based on a real-life bus where the students get kind of wild. When I explained that, as part of my research, I had taken the bus, a student named Aaden wanted to know, "What exactly did the kids on the bus do?" I told Aaden that if I answered his question, I didn't want him to get any evil ideas -- to which he answered, "I don't take the bus!"

Thanks to the students today for being super listeners, and for making me laugh. Thanks to all the teachers -- Madame Messier, Mrs. Tawadrous, Madame Maria, Mrs. Pharand, and Madame Christine for being real-life heroes during the pandemic, and  also for sharing your students with me. Thanks to Ms. Hausen for arranging the visit. And an extra thanks to Mrs. Tawadrous for today's pic. I'll be back on Wednesday for another Zoom visit to Forest Hill Senior!


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Special Morning at Laval Junior Academy

Hello hello, blog readers! Today's entry is called "Special Morning at Laval Junior Academy" -- so you must be wondering what made it special for a person like me who does a lot of school visits! Well, the back story is that when I woke up this morning, I thought, "I've got three Zoom class visits in a row. How in the world am I going to make THAT interesting?" But you know what? It wasn't a problem. Because the students made it interesting!

I worked with three of Ms. Milea's Grade Seven English classes. That's the first group saying good-bye to me in today's pic. I told them my theory that writing is like cooking -- you need good ingredients and you have to sample other people's meals, in the same way that writers need to read the work of other writers. When I asked if any of the kids like cooking, a student named Alessandro said he did. So, being me, I bombarded him with questions! Here's what I learned: Alessandro knows how to make homemade pasta. And he learned the recipe from his nonno, which is Italian for grandfather. "So," I asked Alessandro, "why do you think I read other people's books?" Not surprisingly, Alessandro figured out the answer. "To get tips!" he said. Exactly! I was also telling the class that it helps if a writer is CURIOUS. If I hadn't bombarded Alessandro with questions, I might never have learned about how his nonno taught him to make pasta -- which I think is pretty cool.

Heracles, one of Alessandro's classmates, told me, "I am writing a comic book and I'm planning on publishing it." Excellent news! I told Heracles that one day, I want to take a course on how to write a graphic novel, since it requires a different set of skills than writing a novel-novel. Ms. Milea told me that Heracles is one of several students in her class who are gifted artists. Get going on those graphic novels, all of you!

The mood was completely different in my second group. Many of the students had read my books and they had tons of great questions -- so I spent more than half the period answering those questions. Also, becaue we had some technology glitches, we lost some time at the beginning. I was trying to start speaking even though Ms. Milea told me to be patient. So I cracked up when a student named Kaylen walked up to the computer screen and told me, "M'am, you gotta wait a bit!" Hey, Kaylen, I guess you aren't used to people like me -- ones who are bad at waiting!!!

A student named Alex wanted to know where I read and write. The answer for both was "pretty much anywhere." Many wanted to know why Auschwitz concentration camp was worse than Theresienstadt, the concentration camp where my mother was imprisoned for three years. So I explained that though many prisoners died in Theresienstadt, there were no gas chambers the way there were in Auschwitz. These were difficult things to talk about, but the students wanted to know, and when I checked with Ms. Milea, she felt that they were mature enough to handle the information.

I'd already met my third group -- so this was our second visit. I'd left them with a writing prompt -- to write about their experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic. What's been hardest? What's been good? So several students came up to the screen and read me their work -- which made me super happy! You'll understand why when I tell you a little more about what they come up with.

So here goes. In each case, I asked the student's permission to share a line or two from their stories.

Emma wrote about seeing her grandparents after a long time. It wasn't until the moment she saw them that she "realized how much I missed them." I thought that was a beautiful description, and I asked Emma if she'd let me borrow that feeling for a pandemic story I am planning to write over Christmas. She said yes! Thanks, Emma! And keep working on your own story!

Anthony wrote about going to the airport with his parents, who had told him they were picking up boxes from Greece. Only the boxes weren't boxes; they were Anthony's grandparents! "First I saw my Grampa, then my Gramma," he wrote. Cute story, no? And you can tell that Anthony has a fun family!

Kelly wrote about her family too -- how her mother has been working hard during the pandemic, and how Kelly's big brother had to have surgery following a sports injury. Kelly's mom bought Kelly's brother a bell to ring when he needs someone to bring him something. "Now I get to spend time with him," Kelly wrote. "I'm his little sister -- and little servant." Which cracked us all up -- and made me remind the students to use humour whenever possible in their stories.

A student named Giada wrote about missing her Grade Six graduation: "It's a moment we'll never get back." I found that line heartbreakingly beautiful! Keep writing, Giada! We need your story!

I'll end with Calvin, who wrote about not minding the pandemic so much at first because, "I had myself to talk to." Fun! I told Calvin I think he should write a story about the conversations he's been having with himself. I'd definitely want to read it!

So now you know why my day was happy. So much fun to tell stories and hear stories and be inspired by each other. Thanks for another great day at LJA. Thanks to the kids for working hard, and to Ms. Milea for the invite -- and for sharing your kids with me!


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Virtual Visit to Laval Junior Academy

I started my day with a virtual visit to Laval Junior Academy, where I worked with two of Ms. Milea's Grade Seven classes. A year ago -- so on last Deceber 1st -- who would ever have dreamed author would be visiting schools (even local ones) by Zoom and that the students we'd "meet" on our computers would be wearing masks! Our world has certainly changed in a short time! But as I pointed out to the students today, they will have stories to tell about the COVID-19 pandemic for the rest of their lives. When you think about it, young people have a front row seat to history-in-the-making. WHICH IS WHY I TOLD MS. MILEA'S STUDENTS TO TAKE A LOT OF NOTES!!

I'm happy I'll get to work with each of Ms. Milea's English classes twice. That gives me time to review the writing tips I cover in my usual workshops, and also time to discuss the students' story ideas and give them some feedback on their writing.

As usual, I'll share some fun moments from today's workshops. Here goes! I asked the first class to guess how I learned about boxing so I could write my YA novel Straight Punch. Kelly said, "You went to a boxing ring to see what it's like." Luca said, "You interviewed a boxer." Mya said, "You watched videos." Anthony said, "Maybe you have a friend who's a boxer." I told Kelly, Luca, Mya and Anthony they were all correct -- but that I'd done even better research than that -- that I had taken four years of boxing lessons! That's when I heard Anthony call out, "Oh my god!" -- which cracked me up!!

I do believe in doing on-the-spot research whenever possible. Talking about that led me to talking about how writers need to use the five senses -- or at least some of the five! So I was impressed when Ms. Milea explained that in September, these students had worked on poems about the fall, and that they'd had to include sensory details. YES to that writing exercise!!

I also compared writing to cooking (another thing I love to do). I told the students how including TROUBLE in a story gets things moving -- turns up the heat on, for example, spaghetti sauce. (Can you tell I'm in the mood for spaghetti?) I also talked about adding WHAT IF? to the recipe. I ask myself the WHAT IF? question all the time when I am developing a story plot. What if a character, for example. contracts COVID-19 and transmits it to someone she loves? WHAT IF? also helps to get our stories cooking. I asked the students whether any of them are WHAT IF? thinkers. A student named Many said he was. He said, "I think, 'what if I ordered something else at a Greek restaurant?'" Then Ms. Milea added some sensible advice: "When you go to a Greek restaurant, you order everything!"

As I told the students, it's great to add humour to a story -- even to a serious or sad story. (That's why I like to include funny moments in these blog entries.)

The second class I worked with was quieter, but super-focused. At least I think they were super-focused! At the end of my talk, a student named Michael asked, "What inspired you to be a writer?" I told Michael I think the answer is that I have always loved stories. And I still do. I can't seem to stop reading and writing them. I hope if you're one of the young writers I worked with today, or if you are just someone reading this blog, that you are also hooked on stories.

Thanks to Ms. Milea for arranging today's visit, and for not minding that I wanted to "travel" by Zoom. Thanks to the kids for being smart and fun (an excellent combination if you ask me). I'm already looking forward to my second session with you guys!

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Oh happy day! Virtual Visit to Forest Hill Senior

I called today's post "Oh happy day" because that's the song I was singing before I started writing this blog.

I did have a happy day -- I was "Zooming" (have you noticed how that's become a word?) with three Grade Five classes at Forest Hill Senior Elementary School in St. Lazare. Must say the kids were smart, fun and full of life. I think I was supposed to energize them, but I know for sure they energized me!

Here are some highlights of the day --

I started with Ms. Rousseau's class, where among other things, I discussed the IMPORTANCE OF OBSERVATION. To demonstrate, I observed a student wearing a sparkly dress. In all my years of teaching (34!), I have never taught a student who sparkled like that. That's how I learned it was Shelby's birthday -- and that her dress was a "disco dress." Now that's just the kind of UNUSUAL DETAIL a writer could use in a book!

We also discussed how the pandemic is shaping the world of stories -- and I told the students to be sure to take notes about their own experiences during this challenging period of history. So I was delighted when a student named Gurdeep told me she took notes when her classes were online. "I kept notes about life and lessons," she explained. Way to go, Gurdeep! I hope you'll use those notes in a book one day!

And I had to laugh when a student named Jack asked, "Do your hands ache after a long period of writing?" As I told Jack, I never really thought about it -- because I'm always so happy after a long period of writing... that I don't pay much attention to my hands!

Before lunch, I worked with Ms. Fraser's class. When I talked about the necessity for rewriting, I heard Ms. Fraser say, "Oh gosh yes" -- that also made me laugh. As Ms. Fraser went on to explain, "Once we Grade Fives put our ideas on paper, we're done." Well, Grade Fives, you're now done with being done after you put your ideas on paper. First drafts are JUNK. But they're an important start. Imagine how good your writing will be once you're on draft three, or four ... or nine!

One of Ms. Fraser's students, Chloe, asked me, "When you write something sad, do you ever get emotional?" I thought that was a beautiful, sensitive question -- and the answer is YES. As I told Chloe and her classmates, I'm not afraid of being sad. Also, it's an important emotion in many stories.

I finished the day with Madame Sarah's class. To be honest, I was a wee bit tired, but boy, did they ever liven me up! That's them (or at least some of them) in today's pic. Usually, in my workshops, I cover seven or eight pointers, but with this class, i covered ELEVEN! I have never done that before! I think it's because I could tell the students were really absorbing my pointers! Laurie had three questions. Here they are: 1. "Did you like the smell of the boxing ring?" [the answer is yes]. 2. "Did you write any books with other people?" [the answer is no, but maybe I will one day] and 3. "What was the first book you made?" [the answer is a book I made in Grade Five].

How cool is that? I was working with students who are the same age I was when I wrote my first book!

And you guys have way more interesting lives than I did. So, here's my advice -- get cracking on your stories.

Thanks to Ms. Hausen for arranging today's Zoom sessions; thanks to Ms. Rousseau, Ms. Fraser, and Madame Sarah, for sharing your students with me; thanks to the kids for an oh-so-happy day.

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Virtual Visit to Mount Pleasant Elementary School

You may be wondering why, in today's pic, a class of Grade Five students are waving sheets of paper at me! It's because I was doing virtual class visits at Mount Pleasant Elementary School in Hudson, and I wanted to know whether the kids had paper for taking notes. To answer my question, they waved their sheets at me -- and I must admit that cracked me up!

My day started with Ms. Malone's Grade Six class. Actually it started with a gentleman at the other end of the computer, trying to figure out how to get the audio working on Ms. Malone's whiteboard. I asked the gentleman whether he was the school's "computer guy" and he answered, "I'm the caretaker, the computer guy and I wipe noses sometimes." A few minutes later, he added, "I'm also the principal!" So that's how I met Mr. Massarelli, Mount Pleasant's principal. As I told him, and the students, Mr. Massarelli would make a great character for a book. I have met a lot of prinicpals, and my favourite all have a good sense of humour!

My chance meeting with Mr. Massarelli let me teach the students something important about being a fiction writer -- we steal stuff! By that, I do not mean going to the store and stealing a chocolate bar. That is wrong, and punishable by law. I mean stealing characters, their traits, and even their jokes for your stories. A nicer word than stealing is borrowing -- also we can't get sent to jail for borrowing, can we?

I also worked with Ms. Martel's Grade Sixes, and Mr. Klein and Ms. Kennedy's Grade Fives. I told one of the groups (sorry, I can't remember which one!), to PAY ATTENTION TO THE WORLD AROUND YOU. If you do, you will always have something interesting to write about!

A funny thing happened when I was talking about the importance of rewriting. I was telling the students, "Don't hand in your first draft to Ms. Malone" when I heard Ms. Malone say in the background, "I love you!" That made me laugh too (and also feel happy).

One of Ms. Martel's students Adelaide (great name, I plan to steal, er, I mean borrow that too!) asked me, "Why did you want to become a writer?" I told her it was because I have always loved stories. I bet you can tell that from this blog entry because I even notice I am telling you stories here!

Speaking of stories, I was telling Ms. Martel's class about my meeting with Mr. Massarelli and a student named Theo told me a story. "I remember," Theo said, "I once saw Mr. Massarelli coming to work wearing a pink suit." USE THAT IN A BOOK, THEO!

I ended my day with the Grade Fives -- the ones waving paper in today's pic. I must say they made me laugh, which was just what I needed to end my workday. I asked them, "What's the first thing you need to do if you want to be a writer?" A student named Emmett called out: "Have a pencil!" (The answer I was looking for was WRITE, but Emmett's answer made sense too.)

Thanks to all the teachers -- Ms. Malone, Ms. Martel, Mr.Klein and Ms. Kennedy -- thanks of course to Mr. Massarelli, thanks to librarian Ms. Hausen -- for making today possible... and thanks especially to the students for making me happy! Hope you learned a thing or two today about writing!

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In Which I Visit Evergreen Elementary -- Virtually!

Usually, when I get home from a school visit and start my blog, I begin by writing, "I'm just home from a visit to..." -- only today, I never left the house (except for a run early this morning). Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am doing mostly virtual school visits. Today, I worked with students at Evergreen Elementary School in St. Lazare, and IT WORKED. I'm pretty sure the students learned some useful pointers from me, and I'm absolutely sure I had a blast. (I consider that last part important too!)

My friend, librarian Ms. Hausen went to a lot of trouble to arrange for my visits to several LBPSB schools. And together, we came up with a plan -- I'm speaking to Grade Five classes about a new subject: Writing About the Pandemic; and with the sixes, I'm covering Historical Fiction, so that I can tell them about the process behind my two latest historical novels, The Taste of Rain and Room for One More.

I think it turned out to be a good plan -- especially since many of the Evergreen students had heard me when I visited their school in 2018. So, I whipped through the basic writing tips I usually focus on in a first school visit -- and got down to business.

Here come some highlights from the day!

Teacher Mr. Khoury got things off to a fun start when I overheard him tell his Grade 5/6 class, "Calm down. It's not a dance party!" (To be honest, I kind of liked the idea of a dance party myself!)

I "met" a student named Mitzi -- I told her I am stealing her name for a future character. Mitzi is a spunky name. And I will give the character Mtizi's colorful leggings too. This example is to show you how authors steal/recycle/borrow people from the real world to use in our stories!

Writers also need to be observant. Today I observed a student named Nicole turning her head upside down so she could fix her ponytail. (Another great detail to steal/recycle/borrow for a story), and a boy (was his name Max? help me out here in the comments, and I'll make sure to include his correct name) boogying in his seat!

When we talked about how the pandemic has not only changed our world, but also the stories that we will tell, a student named Mia suggested, "You can write a book about a girl and how the pandemic affected her." I could do that, Mia, but I think YOU should write that book -- since you have firsthand knowledge of being a girl going through the pandemic! When I showed the students the diary I write in every day, a student named Maeva (that's her in today's pic) asked, "Did you write about the first three days of the pandemic?" My answer was yes, but then Maeva's question made me think that a story about the very beginning of the pandemic -- what life was like in theose first three days -- would be cool!

When we discussed historical fiction, a student named Logan had this to say: "Historical fiction is about a story you're making; it's not as real." Logan's comment led to what I thought was a pretty grown-up conversation about the intersection between fact and fiction. Historical novels need to be as accurate as possible when it comes to historical events --not to mention things like what people eat and how they dress. But the weird thing for me is that fiction -- which happens when we make up characters and put them into complicated, interesting situations -- has a strange way of telling the truth. However I also reminded the students that what's been going on in the United States has taught us the necessity of truth. When Donald Trump declared that he had won the presidential election before all the votes were counted -- that could not have been true.

The students at Evergreen gave me a lot to think about today. I hope I got their brains working too! I came up with a new bit of advice that I haven't given before, so here it is -- TELL THE STORY THAT MATTERS MOST TO YOU. I like that advice. What about you?

Special thanks to Ms. Hausen, and to teachers Mr. Khoury, Ms. Weir and Ms. Bilodeau for sharing your students with me. It was not a dance party -- but it was close!



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Fill 'er up!

Twenty-five or so years ago, when I was just dreaming about writing books for kids, my friend, author Rina Singh told me I had to go to CANSCAIP’s annual Packaging Your Imagination conference. (In case you don’t know ... CANSCAIP stands for Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers.) So I did! And attending the conference, which up until this year, has always taken place in Toronto, helped make my dream of writing – and publishing -- books for kids come true. Rina, as usual, was right!

So you’ll understand how thrilled I was that today, I got to present at Packaging Your Imagination. I could tell you about my talk – which was about doing the research that goes into fiction writing – but I’ll save that for a different day. Today, I want to tell you about some of the many things I learned from attending other authors’ workshops.

Get ready! There’s a lot to tell! But how about I share my absolute favourites?

In this morning’s keynote address, author and storyteller Adwoa Badoe (that's Adwoa in today's pic) not only sang to us, she also told us the story of how life turned her into a writer. “I take risks with my imagination,” she said. “If you don’t like your status quo, then jump and see what happens.”

Frieda Wishinsky shared tips for writing picture book biographies. She explained that, “What happens with the people you write about – they become your friends.” Frieda advised those of us interested in doing historical research to, “look for juicy details” and “find pivotal moments.”

Editor and author Shelley Tanaka did a talk about finding the theme of your story. She believes writers need to ask themselves, “Why are you writing this story in the first place?” Shelley reminded us that, “Writing is not a straight line to perfection.” She had the wonderful suggestion that sometimes we writers hide our themes in odd places. Look, Shelley suggested, for “seemingly inconsequential details that you will remember later.” Shelley called those details, “little sizzles.” And I had one of my proudest writer moments EVER when Shelley talked for a few moments about one of my books – and how behind the zany plot, it deals with the theme of imagination and truth. “Can,” Shelley asked about my character Angelica, “a funny, inventive kid get away with making up things?”

In a panel about kids’ book publishing, three publishers filled us in on what’s happening behind the scenes. Groundwood publisher Karen Li spoke eloquently about the importance of diversity in kids’ books. “It’s not a trend,” she told us. “This is a long time coming. This is a course correction.”

And if you are thinking a wonderful day couldn’t get any better, you’d be wrong. Author and Canadian kid-lit star Teresa Toten delivered the closing keynote, openly describing the struggles she’s faced both in her career and personal life. And she managed to be funny at the same time! “I really want you to learn from the bad bits,” she told us. She shared her list of things writers need to “get up from”: rejection letters, manuscript “surgery,” reviews, and prize lists. But despite the potentially painful parts of the writing life, Teresa explained that, “We do it because we have to do it.” She also stressed the importance of writers supporting other writers: “Let’s be aggressive cheerleaders of each other’s work.” Teresa pointed out that, “What we do is lonely and confusing. It’s so important to fill ourselves up.”

Yes yes yes and yes again to all these wonderful lessons and pointers from today’s conference. Packaging Your Imagination was the perfect way for this writer to get filled up. Thanks to the organizers (they include Heather Camlot, Sharon Jennings, Helena Aalto), presenters, and all the writers for kids, who, like me, do it because we have to. Now go get filled up!!  

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Back to Teaching Writing at Marianopolis -- Virtually

Hello hello, blog readers! I had my first fully on-line class just now -- and I told my students the most important thing about their journal-writing is that it has to be honest. So, I'm going to follow my own advice and confess that I was DREADING going back to school as an on-line teacher. Last semester, when the pandemic hit, we had already had half a semester with our students, so switching to on-line delivery was challenging, but not that bad... I think because we had already gotten to know our classes.

But I've got happy news! Though I didn't meet my Introduction to English class in person, I ALREADY FEEL FOND OF THEM. This is for me the magic of teaching -- and I honestly didn't think the magic could really happen online. Maybe it's that teenagers are my favourite age group. Maybe it's that even on-line, I could feel my students' interest and CURIOSITY. (We also discussed how curiosity is essential because it leads to learning.)

I thought I'd share a few fun moments from today's class. When I asked the students if any of them actually enjoyed writing, a student named Diana answered, "Yes... but if it's hard, it won't be pleasure." I took that moment to explain my philosophy -- THAT WRITING IS ALMOST ALWAYS HARD, BUT IN A WEIRD WAY THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT MAKES IT A PLEASURE! Even at my age (sixty!), and after publishing a lot of books, I STILL FIND WRITING HARD. (But doing hard things feels good!)

We talked about the kinds of writing a person can do in a journal. I explained that cathartic writing allows us to express and process our feelings. A student named Maxine told us, "My mom makes me write to express my feelings." Maxine didn't know the word cathartic -- and I told her to tell her mom that she's doing a great job -- and to teach her mom the word cathartic too (in case she doesn't know it).

We also talked about self-care -- and how, as the pandemic continues, we all need to look after others, but also ourselves. I mentioned a few self-care strategies such as reading, writing, being out in nature, getting exercise and being kind to others. A student named Ashley suggested "skincare" -- but because the sound was a little muffled, I thought she had said "kincare" -- which is not a real word, but which I decided that I liked. Skincare is good too, but the word "kin" refers to family (and friends). So, I loved the idea that caring for family and friends is good for us too. And we invented a word during our class -- kincare! 

So here's wishing you, wherever you are, no matter your age, a good back-to-school season. Despite the challenges our world is facing, it's heartening to know that curiosity and learning and caring for others all remain alive and well. My first morning back at Marianopolis College -- even on-line -- reminded me how privileged I am to be a teacher! Special thanks to my Introduction to English students for making me feel this way! Welcome to Marianopolis!

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Fun to Meet Up With Catherine Austen

If you love Canadian kid lit, you will have heard of my friend, author Catherine Austen. Well, guess what? I met up with her today. Not in person, alas (we are in the middle of a pandemic, and even if we weren't, Catherine lives outside of Ottawa), but via Ziom -- and we had fun! Catherine is the author of many books, including two of my favourites, Walking Backward and All Good Children, both published by Orca Books. Last semester, before the pandemic struck, I read the beginning of Walking Backward to my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College and they loved it -- it's about a boy coping with his mom's death, and his dad's kookiness. Catherine's next book is a picture book, coming out in spring 2021. Like me, you will not be able to resist the title: The Squirrel Stole My Sister (Fitzhenry and Whiteside).

This morning, Catherine interviewed me for her upcoming podcast that you will be able to find at For the podcast, Catherine will be sharing spooky stories, along with tips from other Canadian kids' authors. She had a lot of interesting questions for me, including "Do you have a setting you're afraid of?" and "Would you rather me a zombie, a vampire or a ghost?" Her question about a scary setting prompted me to tell Catherine that I have a bit of claustrophobia -- and that I have trouble in elevators, especially when they stop unexpectedly between floors. As for a being a zombie, vampire or ghost, I didn't have a strong opinion -- though I said that if I were a ghost, I'd like to be one who could intervene -- kind of like a Jewish-mother-ghost (I am a Jewish mother, so it would fit). When I said that, Catherine pointed out that the Jewish-mother-ghost story could make a good book. See, that's a fun part about hanging out with fellow authors (even on Zoom!) -- you get to kick around ideas!

The first episode of should be out by the end of the week. I hope you're looking forward to it. I know I am. Oh, I asked Catherine why she decided to write a picture book about squirrels, and she told me that she had a "squirrel friend" when she was a child. Ah ha! That ties into my philosophy that we carry stories with us in the form of memories. USE THEM!!

Hope, dear blog reader, that today's entry finds you well and feeling hopeful. This pandemic has changed our lives in expected and unexpected ways. But if you are interested in writing, perhaps you will have found more time to pursue that dream. Check out Catherine's podcast to hear some great stories and get some practical writing tips!

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Reporting on Part 2 -- How to Write a Picture Book Workshop

This afternoon was Part 2 of my on-line writing workshop "How to Write a Picture Book" (offered through ELAN's ArtsInspire program) -- this time the students mostly took over. You can see two of them in today's pic -- Julie and Lisa -- both of whom turn out to be talented artists in addition to strong writers. And just last week, I told the class, it's very rare to have a talent for both writing picture books and illustrating them -- only it seems I had two exceptions in my class!

There were many more participants, and several were kids -- but we didn't have the right permission papers to allow me to post pics of the kids. So you'll have to take it from me that they were wonderful. In fact, my favourite part of today's workshop was seeing how beatifully the kids and adults interacted. I think it's because we all felt equal. The kids were super smart, and focused -- and the adults, well, let's just say they're kids at heart. (Those are always my favourite kind of adults.)

Some highlights of today's workshop -- Before Tristan read his story, he explained, "I wrote it for people your age." I told Tristan I was a little surprised he'd written a picture book for adults, but then I thought a second longer and I realized he had come up with a genius idea. If adults write picture books for kids, why can't a kid write a picture book for adults?!! Tristan has a lovely way with words and a good sense of story. I especially loved his line "A bit of everything" (this was in response to a dad asking his son what kind of homework he had to do). I think you've got yourself another great book title, Tristan!

Alexandra told us about waking up after a dream and wondering, "Am I still dreaming?" We thought this might make for the beginning of a cool story. Hayden wrote a story with a friend about "Nopeland" -- a place where people say nope a lot! We discussed in Part 1 of the workshops how stories need trouble, and a land where everyone says nope sounds like trouble to me!

Lisa read us a story inspired by arguments she used to have with her daughter, whose hair was difficult to brush. And Julie read us about a certain pasty-inspired captain who's trying not to lose his cool. As I said at the start of this entry, both Lisa and Julie had begun illustrating their stories and the results were gorgeous.

So, I guess I did my job if my "students" came up with such good stuff, right? Or maybe I was just lucky to have such wonderful students. Thanks to Guillaume for getting us organized, to ELAN's ArtsInspire program for making the workshops happen... and most of all, thanks to the students. You've made me super happy, and also proud that i was able to work with you! KEEP WRITING AND READING AND TAKING NOTES. XO FROM MO




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In Which I Teach a Virtual Class on Pic Bk Writing

Hello blog readers! I’m in the BEST mood because I just TAUGHT A CLASS! It was supposed to be fun for the participants, but I think I had the BEST TIME OF EVERYONE.

So here are the “deets” (cool word for “details” in case you didn’t know that).

My class was called How to Write a Picture Book. And I did it on-line of course since we’re having a pandemic. It’s a two-part workshop, offered by ArtsInspire, an ELAN Quebec project. I was assisted by the lovely Guillaume Jabbour, a musician, who’s also an ArtsInspire project coach.

So I had an hour with my class, and we have another hour together next week. I read two picture books to them – oh, that was fun. I chose Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, and Maureen Ferguson’s A Dog Day for Susan (illustrated by Monica Arnaldo). I read the books as a way to teach my class some important picture book tips, such as picture books need to be FUNNY, they need to have HEART, they need DIALOGUE, there is often REPETITION and VARIATION and you should leave out the boring parts!

I knew some of my participants. One was my dear friend Elena and her mom. Elena lives in Boston. Another was my friend Debbie, and also my current friend and former student (now a teacher too!) Lea. Lea was there with her kids. Sooo sweet for me to see them. I also met several new friends. One was a boy named Tristan who told us, “I have a big imagination.” THAT’S GREAT, TRISTAN. I think you are on your way to becoming a writer. Also, I love that line you said at the end of the workshop – “This is what it is” – I hope you’ll take my advice and use that for a book title one day. There was also Jesse who, during the magic memory exercise, came up with a super funny story about an egg that leads him into another world.

Hey, even if you missed today’s workshop, you can join us for Part Two next week – Thursday, July 2 at 3 PM. Of course, you won’t be quite as smart as the kids and adults who took Part One today!! Just joking! Hey, thanks Guillaume, thanks ArtsInspire and ELAN, and thanks especially to the participants. You made my heart sing! See you next week

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Lemme Tell You About Tim Wynne-Jones's Book Launch Today!

I've been to loads of book launches, but never a virtual one. And never such a fun and interesting one as Tim Wynne-Jones's launch for his new short story collection, War at the Snow White Hotel and Other Stories. Which is why, while it was going on this afternoon, I knew I had to take notes for you, dear blog reader.

So Tim read the first story in his book -- it's the one that gives the collection its title. I don't want to give too much away, but the story has two bullies in it, delightfully named Buzzcut and Squirrel. And just when Rex, the narrator (fans of Tim's work will recognize Rex) gets into deep trouble, he hears the Roy Orbison song "It's Over." (I couldn't help LOL'ing when Tim read that part.)

Tim, who's won the Governor General's Prize, is probably Canada's most famous chilidren's writer. And though he could be snobby, he's down-to-earth and super fun and funny. (And he's even come to my house for supper!)

Anyway, after his most amusing reading, Tim answered questions which we posted on line. That's when I started serious note-taking!

Here's what i learned today from Tim:

He talked about the importance of story during this pandemic. (This was in response to my favourite question, posed by his son Lewis.) Tim said, "I'm chain-reading -- lighting the next book after the last one. Stories resolve themselves. In a time of chaos, [we need] ... stories. Keep telling each other stories!" (That advice totally made my day.)

He said about fairytales  -- this came up because, as you figured out, the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves helped inspire Tim's new collection -- that "they are the DNA of stories. They can lie around for centuries -- just add some water."

He also compared what we are currently living through with war. "For our generation, it's our first war. But it's such a weird enemy. It's really hard to hate a string of proteins with a furry jacket on." Can you tell from the way Tim expressed that thought that the man is a writer?!

He told us that sometimes, when he's asked where he gets ideas from, he tells kids, "I get my ideas from the idea store." That made me very happy. I love the idea store too -- and you don't need to wear a face mask when you shop there!

Asked about the difference between writing short stories and novels, Tim told us, "Basically, I'm a novelist. In novels, things keep getting worse and worse and worse." I loved that too -- and if any of my own Writing for Children students are reading this blog entry, you may be able to connect Tim's comment with our ongong discussion about the necessity of trouble in stories!

Tim thinks we need more short stories for young people. Like Edgar Allan Poe, Tim likes the idea of a piece of literature that can be read in one sitting. "I think," he told us, "that a really solid short story is a great thing for a young reader."

You know what else is a great thing for a young reader -- and an older one too? It's the chance to spend time in Tim's company. You can do that by reading one of his many many fine books. And if you're on Facebook, visit  Tim's author page. You should be able to catch a recording of today's launch there!


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Writing -- and Teaching -- During a Pandemic

Hello out there, Wide World! Who could ever have imagined we'd find ourselves INSIDE THE STRANGEST BOOK WE EVER READ?

Usually, I write blog posts when I do a school visit, or after I interview someone inspiring. But today, I'm reporting in from the world of self-isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. One thing I know for sure is that when all this is over, are we ever going to have a lot of stories to tell!

First, because I work with young readers, I really want to say how grateful I am to all the kids out there. By staying home, by maintaining social distance, you are protecting the rest of us. And that's pretty amazing. Thank you.

In-school classes ended in mid-March across Quebec, so that means I have been transforming myself into a "remote" teacher. That's been a lot more work than any of us could have imagined. And of course, we weren't prepared for the transition. On the positive side, we teachers have been adapting pretty well. I've been posting youtube lessons for my students, and reading their responses to study questions on-line. The biggest surprise for me is that I usually HATE correcting essays -- but now I've actually begun to appreciate it (if not quite LIKE it). That's a big change after 33 years of teaching. I think it's because, for the first time, correcting feels like a conversation. And for the first time, I have the sense that my students are actually reading my comments -- not just hurrying to the last page to check their marks!

As for the writing life... well... let's just say... it's wonderful. All of us writers out there (and that includes you, dear blog reader because we're all writers with stories to tell), we finally have TIME TO WRITE. Some of my writer friends say they've been finding it hard to feel calm and centered enough to focus, but what I find is that writing calms and centers me. So if you're feeling jumpy, maybe you should write it out... and see if after you've written about feeling jumpy or anxious or sad or worried... well, it leads you to a story.

If you ask me, stories will never be the same after this pandemic. That's because we're all deeply affected by what we are experiencing, and will experience. All of that will find its way into every story that we will ever write in the future.

Happily for me, I've been asked to do lots of on-line book-related activities. Yesterday, I took part in Blue Met's Cosy Reading Hour. It's a program in which Quebec children's writers are reading live every morning through April 20... visit Blue Metropolis's official Facebook page to learn more about this fun program. I've also posted one of my first youtube "lessons" -- it's what I like to call in the real classroom "a special treat." (I do believe in special treats on a regular basis.) It's me reading from the beginning of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland -- my favourite book of all time, and the one I'm teaching to my Stuff of Nonsense classes at Marianopolis.

I miss the "real" world like crazy. I miss my real students. I miss rushing to class. I miss saying at the end of what felt like a great class, "Okay, get outta here!" But I feel super privileged to be able to continue to connect through words -- and of course with the help of technology -- with the people I love, and that includes my students and readers. Stay safe all of you, and keep reading and writing!

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Fun Day at Centennial Park School!

This morning, I did four writing workshops at Centennial Park School in Chateauguay. I told the students I planned to treat them the same way I treat my students at Marianopolis College -- even though the kids at Centennial are way younger! In fact, one class I worked with today consisted of kids in kindergarten and Grade One, and the oldest Centennial Park students I met today were in Grades Three and Four! But you know what? I managed to cover a lot of the material I do with much older students at Marianopolis! So if you're reading this blog entry, Centennial Park students, congrats for working so hard and paying such close attention to my writing tips!

I started the day with Miss Fruciano's Grades Three and Four class. There, during one of my writing exercises, a student named Jackson came up with a great idea for a book. Jackson gave me permission to quote his idea in today's blog. Here goes: "My book would be about a dog and a boy who go to a hockey game." Now that's definitely a book I would want to read! And when we were discussing writing tips, a student named Conor raised his hand and said, "In the book Captain Underpants, George says, 'the best way to make a story is to create characters.'" I love Conor's comment because it shows he's a reader who pays attention, and also because I agree with George. The best stories tend to be what we call "character-driven" -- meaning that the plot (what happens in the story) is determined by the characters who people the story.

I spent second period with Ms. Kustec's Kindergarten and Grade One class. I must say these kids were super cute and super smart! I learned that it was Emma's birthday. It turns out that several kids in this class are already avid writers -- including Emma, who told me, "I'm already starting to write books. I'm writing about unicorns." Because most of the kindergarteners in the class don't yet know how to write, I let them draw pictures for the writing exercise -- and that turned out to be fun. Plus I got to see some wonderful, creative drawings!

In today's pic, that's me with Miss McGee and her Grades Two and Three class. Miss McGee had already taught her students how to write an "information" book, but I hope they learned a little from me about writing fiction. One thing I discussed with this class was the connection between memory and fiction writing. A student named Brendan told me he learned that, "We need to remember stuff." That's absolutely true, Brendan -- and writing about your memories will help you remember even more interesting stuff! For their writing exercise, I asked Miss McGee's students to write about a memory from when they were five years old. I loved how a student named Cassandra started her piece: "I smell cats." Which got me wondering -- what do you think of The Smell of Cats for a book title? (I love it!) Cassandra, get to work on that book!!

I ended today's visit to Centennial Park with Miss Lacey's Grades One and Two class. These kids were super listeners and participators -- even though it was the period before lunch and I bet they were hungry! My only regret is that I didn't ask the name of the boy who helped me pack my book bag! But if you're reading this, young man, I want to say that when I look back on my fun day, that is a very sweet memory. Thanks for being so helpful and kind.

Life at schools around the world has been pretty stressful lately -- with everyone worrying about contracting the Covid19 virus. But today's visit to Centennial Park reminded me of how wonderful and heartening it is to be around young students. I'm scheduled to return next week -- if our schools remain open. In the mean time, wash your hands, be kind to each other, read a lot, and WRITE WRITE WRITE!!!

Special thanks to ELAN'S ArtistsInspire program, to Madame Sirois for arranging today's visit, to the teachers for sharing their students, and to the students for making me so happy!

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Today's Virtual Visit to St. Francis Elementary School

Usually, when I do a blog post after a school visit, I begin by saying, "I'm just home from a visit to..." -- except today I DIDN'T LEAVE HOME. Which is a good thing since we're having a snowstorm here in Montreal and the roads are icy!

In January, in even worse weather, I drove to the Bas Cantons east of Montreal to do writing workshops at St. Francis Elementary School School. Only that day the weather was so bad (and it didn't help that I took the long road), I arrived late and missed my first workshop with the school's Grade Sixes. But luckily, I got to do my workshop with them today -- and I'd say it went well!

Here's a pic I took while I was working with the students. (I think I need to clean my computer screen!!)

It couldn't have been easy for the students to start their day paying attention to some curly-haired woman giving them writing tips, all from a computer screen. But the students were super attentive and I was happy to see them taking lots of notes. In today's pic, they are actually doing a writing exercise -- something I never tried before during a virtual visit.

One of the things we discussed was that writers need to be OBSERVANT. I made the students laugh when I pointed out a student at the second table who was TWIRLING HIS PEN. I also noticed a pair of boots near the second table. They seem to have no apparent owner. Something about those boots makes me think they have a story. We also talked about the importance of asking "What if?" to move a story forward. What if, at the end of the day, no one comes to claim those boots? How would the student to whom those boots belong get home in the snow without them? And what would those boots do after school in an abandoned classroom?

Because the sound connection wasn't perfect this morning, and because the bell rang, the students didn't have time to ask me questions. I'm hoping they'll do it here in the comments section. In which case, I can answer here too.

Special thanks to Siu-min Jim for the invite to St. Francis, and for making today's virtual visit work. And thanks to the students for being AWESOME. Remember what I told you -- those memories you came up with during today's writing exercise are STORIES ASKING TO BE TOLD. Now go and tell them. Work hard on the first draft, and even harder on your re-writing! Over and out from Monique









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Meet Natasha Deen

You should definitely meet Edmonton-based kids' writer Natasha Deen! I did!

Here's a selfie Natasha and I took yesterday at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference.

Natasha and I have been virtual friends for a couple of years -- we are both published by Orca Books -- and when we finally met in person, we clicked!

Also, because I'm always thinking about YOU, dear blog reader (and also about my Writing for Children students at Marianopolis College), I did a mini-interview (I wrote my notes on the back of an envelope!!) with Natasha and gleaned some useful tips!

Natasha is the author of 17 books, including In the Key of Nira Ghani (Running Press), which is up for the Red Maple Award! The novel is about a Guyanese immigrant. Natasha comes from Guyana too. When I asked if Nira is based on her, Natasha told me: "She's like the me I hoped to be. She's a lot sassier than I was!"

It turns out that Natasha is drawn by sassiness! She told me she is working on several projects now ("because," she said, "you never know what'll stick to the wall." One of those projects is about a kid and a senior citizen. It turns out the senior citizen is based on another sassy person in Natasha's life -- her mother-in-law who died in 2016.

I was just telling my students last week that authors tend to draw on real-life memories, sometimes transforming them in their stories. Natasha told me she has included a scene in her work-in-progress that was based on something she really saw her mother-in-law do: get into a tug-of-war over a green basket at a super store! "I remember she had a muppet scowl on her face," Natasha said. The funniest part of the story is that the man involved in the tug-of-war was so much taller than Natasha's mothr-in-law he didn't realize what was going on!

Natasha also explained that her mother-in-law was a private person, and so before her mother-in-law died, Natasha asked her permission to base a character on her. And her mother-in-law agreed.

What I like so much about this story is that it's not only funny, but that it's also full of love and respect. And it celebrates sassiness.

I'm looking forward to reading Natasha's books. Hope you are too!

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Just the Right Amount of Trouble in Richmond, Quebec

Because I'm taking part in an event called La Nuit de la Lecture this weekend in Mebourne, Quebec, I was invited today to visit the nearby Richmond Regional High School and also St. Francis Elementary.

I'm always telling students that STORIES NEED TROUBLE -- that though we'd rather not have trouble, it makes great story material. So listen what happened to me. I accidentally took the scenic route to the school, and instead of taking me TWO HOURS it took me nearly THREE! Grrr! At one point, I knew I had to turn right on a steet called Principale. The trouble happened when I saw a street that went right. Only the street sign was covered in a thick layer of fresh snow. So... I got out of the car to wipe off the sign, but I WAS TOO SHORT TO REACH IT! It's an example of trouble that in retrospect is funny -- though I wasn't amused at the time!

When I finally arrived, I worked first with Miss Sullivan's Sec III class. When I had them do the memory of being ten years old exercise, a student named Harrison wrote this: "I'm in my dad's class. The boys always had a bite of our sandwiches before lunch. Our teacher never really appreciated that." Harrison, I think a story about a kid whose dad is his teacher would make a great book. WRITE IT.

At St. Francis, I met Miss Stpehanie's Grade Fives. These kids wanted to do a Q&A with me -- and they had great questions. Matis asked, "How much time does it take to write a book?" I explained that there are a lot of steps in book-writing. The first draft usually takes me between six months and a year, then another six months or so re-wiriting... and then I have to wait for the publisher to add my book to their catalogue. Noah asked, "What made you want to write?" I told him that I want to write because I LOVE STORIES. Stories I read, stories I hear people tell... every kind of story.

I'll try to add a picture to this blog entry tomorrow. Thanks to the kids for being fun, thanks to Siu-Min Jim for arranging today's visit. I promise to make up the time I lost sign-cleaning in a Skype with the kids. Thanks also to ELAN's ArtistsInspire grant program. Now if only I was five foot six!!





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Getting to Know My Way Around Laurentian Regional High

Hello dear blog readers! I'm back from my second day of writing workshops at Laurentian Regional High School in Lachute. I'm feeling extra-happy -- I think because it was fun to get a second visit with Mrs. Vero's Grade Ten students. We got to go a little deeper into writing tips, stories, and of course, writing!

When I told the first group that I get some of my best ideas in the shower (and that lots of writers report the same thing), a student named Cloée said, "I fight with imaginary enemies in the shower. I think about what I'm going to say the next day to someone I'm in a fight with." Ooh, that made me happy. Not only because I think it's cool and creative, but also because I think that I might STEAL THAT BEHAVIOR and make one of the characters in my book do the same thing! Thanks, Chloée-- hope that's okay with you!!

When I do writing exercises I always tell the students who don't feel "into it" to write about how annoyed tthey feel, and how they hate my writing exercises! (I figure any kind of writing is good for the brain!) Anyway, that's what a student I'll call "F" did -- grumbled about my exercise. Only when I read his grumbling, I found a GORGEOUS LINE. F gave me permission to quote it here: "I am sad when I wake up and sad when I go to bed." F, I think you need to start writing a book and use that as your first line! (Also, you may find that writing improves your mood.) When I said to F, "You're a writer," he answered, "No thank you." Hey, I thought that was very funny -- another skill writers can use! Now quit grumbling, F, and use your talents!

A student named Graeme also showed his gift for writing. His piece was in pencil, so it was hard for me tor read... but it was worth squinting for! He described a "blistering day" and he wrote, "I'm in suburban hell." Excellent use of language that really grabbed my attention, Graeme, which is exactly what writers need to do!

The second group was also wonderful. (They're the students in today's pic.) Tianna (the student who stole my heart during last week's visit) also gets good ideas in the shower. "I've even thought of time travel in the shower," she told us. Later, when we were talking about dads, "Tianna said, "I've had four... concussions." But during that pause (indicated in the last sentence by my use of ellipsis -- the three dots -- I thought Tianna was saying, "I've had four DADS." Which made me think -- wouldn't that make a great opening line for a book? Tianna, get on the case!

Special thanks to Mrs. Vero for the invite to work with your lovely students, to the students for being lovely (and smart and warm), and to ELAN and their Artists Inspire program for making my visits to LRHS possible!






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Meeting Characters -- and Inspiring Young Writers at Laurentian Regional High School

I'm just home from a day of writing workshops with Mrs. Vero's Sec IV students at Laurentian Regional High School in Lachute. I met a lot of CHARACTERS (yay, we writers love that!)... and hopefully I managed to inspire some young writers!

Here's a pic taken at the end of my second workshop. Meet Emily (Emily, I hope I got your name and the spelling right... if not, post a comment and I'll fix it ASAP!) and Jessy, two of the students I worked with, and their lovely teachers Mrs. Vero.

Here are a few highlights from today's visit. They'll also give you a sense of the CHARACTERS I was talking about.

A student named Tianna stole my heart -- I think because I could tell she was having fun before I even started my talk. Also she asked me, "Are you coming back next week?" And the answer is YES -- I'll be back next Tuesday to do the second part of my workshop with the same classes.

Now a student named Joe was, shall I say, less enthusiastic than Tianna. But I did feel him warming up -- and I look forward to seeing his writing next week.

When I showed the students the journal I write in every morning, a student named Ryan commented, "Like anything you need to practise." Right on, Ryan! Or maybe it's more accurate to say Write on!

It was when I was telling ths students that they need to make writing a habit, but that it doesn't matter if they write every day the way I do, or perhaps even just once a week... say every Sunday for the rest of their lives. That's when a student named Rebecca said, "That would make an incredible book." Wow, I use that example all the time, but I never thought of how it could be a real book. You're right, Rebecca. So get started this Sunday!

For my name collection (authors collect names for future characters), I met a student today named JUSTIS Cool name, cool spelling!

And Jessy (he's in today's pic) stayed after the second workshop to tell me, "I'm more of an artist. Do you think the techniques you talked about can be applied to art too?" YES YES YES. Whether you work with words or images, you need to practise a ton, you need to revise (redraw), and you need to study the work of other artists. And you need to be prepared for obstacles -- and then jump over them!!

Tianna gave me permission to share what she wrote when I asked the students to remember something important from when they were five years old. Here it is: "I can hear the sound of my heart pounding harder by the minute as I am trying to tell my mother I like males and females." Wow, Tianna, great detail (the heart pounding) and what an important subject -- a child of five already beginning to become aware of sexuality and attraction. That takes courage, Tianna -- you should write that story from the point of view of your  five-year-old self!

As I told all the students today, writing -- and living -- take COURAGE. I had the second group do an exercise I rarely experiment with -- I asked them to write about the most difficult thing they ever experienced. Something told me these kids could handle it. And they did. Now for homework, I want them to write about how they SURVIVED the difficult thing.

That's it for today's blog. I hope I gave you a lot to think about -- the way Mrs. Vero's kids gave me a lot to think about -- and feel. Thanks to Mrs. Vero for the invite, and to the kids for inspiring me. Hey, I should mention I was there as part of a new ELAN program called Artists Inspire. So thanks to them too!








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Today's Visit to Polyvalente Charlesbourg

Hello again, blog readers! I’m writing to you from the train – heading home to Montreal after two fun days of school visits in Quebec City.

Today, I worked with Mr. Royer’s Secondary IV students at Polyvalente de Charlesbourg. I knew my day was off to a lucky start when I hopped into a cab in Quebec City, and my cab driver knew exactly where to go – his daughter goes to that school! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet her, because she’s in Sec. I.

Mr. Royer’s students are taking Enriched English. I made sure to tell them how lucky I think they are to be (or to be becoming) fully bilingual. I explained that though I read and speak French, I have never written a story in French – and that they will grow up to be people who can read, speak and write fluently in at least two languages. Pretty impressive and as I told them, a kind of passport to a richer life!

The students were super-focused, which made my work easy… in fact, it didn’t feel like work! I told them that one of the reasons I enjoy doing school visits is that I remember how, when I was their age, I had no one to talk to about my dream of becoming an author. I didn't meet a published author until I was at university. So somtimes I think that maybe someone like the kid I used to be will be in my audience -- and that young person will be able to benefit from some of my experience.

Today, it felt as if many of Mr. Royer's students were the kind of young people I just described... eager to learn tricks of the trade! When I told the students that even after publishing 29 books, I still find writing difficult, and I often make a GRRRR noise when I am working at my desk, a student named Lara said she could relate. "I sometimes feel GRRRR," she said. "But I like to write. I don't know why. I write to myself to remember." I loved what Lara said about writing to remember, especially since I had the students do a writing exercise that focused on memory. I think memories are not random; rather they are stories asking us to tell them!

When I asked the students why reading is as important as writing, a student named Yasmine came up with an answer I liked. She said, "Reading lets you learn more styles." Exactly, Yasmine! Then I showed the students the book that I am reading, Le Miroir de Carolanne, which happens to be written by my friend, Quebec author Marie Gray.

If you read my blog, you know that I collect names for future characters. Today, I collected the name Polina -- I like it because it's an unusual spelling of a pretty name. Polina, don't be surprised to find your name in one of my books one of these days!

I'll end today's blog entry with a word about Xavier. Let's just say he's one of the few students who didn't seem so "into" the writing exercise. I noticed he only wrote three words about his memory... at first, I wasn't impressed, until I read the words: "vomit/shame/fun." Whoo, Xavier, there's a story there. My favourite part is in the middle word -- shame. It's a feeling that few people are brave enough to write about. And as I told the students today, writing takes COURAGE. Go for it, Xavier. Here's your challenge: turn those three words into a story.

So, I think I caused enough trouble for today! Time for me to finish Marie's book. Special thanks to Mr. Royer for arranging my visit (to Mr. Lord at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie for coordinting the two visits), and to all the kids for being AWESOME.

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Bonjour from Beauport

You will wonder what the students are doing in today's pic. Taking a nap? Meditating?

No, they're WRITING!

That's because, as I explained to the students at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie today, all writing begins in our heads.

I'm in Quebec City for two days of writing workshops. I've been to Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie many times before. You'd figure I'd know my way around by now, but I don't! Today, I worked with Mr. Lord's and Miss Alexandra's Sec III students. Most are French-speaking, but their English is excellent. And I was not supposed to speak a word of French with them, though I slipped up a couple of times!

I thought I'd begin today's report with something funny. Mr. Lord introduced me to Miss Alexandra, then before he went to his own class, he warned me, "Don't French!" I know he meant "Don't speak French!" but the verb "to french" also refers to serious kissing. No problem, Mr. Lord, I'll save my serous kissing for a more appropriate occasion!!

One of the things I love about school visits is meeting "characters" -- I mean students of course, but the truth is they inspire me when I create my own characters! Let me tell you about a few ccxharacters I met today.

There was William, who admitted he wasn't too interested in learning about writing. I asked him, "What do you like?" and he answered "Nothing." I told William that he helped me come up with a great book title, I Like Nothing. What do you think? Look, William, I'm pretty busy writing books right now. How about you get started on that book? After all, it's your title.

A student named Lea caught my eye because of her striking black hair. I also liked how she was dressed: she was wearing a T-shirt over a long-sleeved maroon top. I think I am going to let one of the characters in the book I'm working on dress like Lea.

There's always a student who steals my heart. Today it was Anthony. I noticed little things about him, such as that he is prone to blushing and that he drums his fingers on his desk. Also he told me he enjoys writing -- which accounts in part for why I liked him so much!! At the end of my talk, Anthony commented that, "There's a million ways to write." True, Anthony. Now your task is to find your way, and maybe borrow a couple of my tricks if they prove useful to you.

With Mr. Lord's first group, I experimented with a new writing exercise. I asked the students to write a paragraph about someone they know who "has a story." Ariane wrote about her grandmother. I asked Ariane's permission to quote a line from her description. Here it is: "My grandmother is the only one who understands me." I LOVED THAT. Ariane, you need to learn your grandmother's story -- and make it yours.

My last class of the day was with Mr. Lord's other group. There, I worked with the memory exercise I often use during writing workshops. I asked the students to remember an event from when they were five years old. Though there wasn't much writing time, a student named Laurence came up with something lovely, which I think she should develop into a story. Laurence also let me quote her, so here goes: "He was my first frisnd who was a boy." Great topic, Laurence -- and well worth exploring -- first friendship between the sexes.

Okay pages, I'm writing to you today from a coffee shop in old Quebec. Time now to kick back, drink my coffee, and listen in on conversations -- it's another trick I have for finding inspiration.

Thanks to Mr. Lord for arranging today's visit, and to him and Miss Alexandra for sharing their students with me. And a special thanks to the students for getting my 2020 off to a happy start. Write and read -- then repeat as necessary!!




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It's A Wrap! The Mysterious Story of the Twins...

All fall, graphic novelist Laurence Dionne and I have been working together with students at Père-Vimont School and Courtland Park International School on a Blue Metropolis Foundation project called The Mysterious Story of the Twins. We've visited each school three times, and the students (who have not yet met in person) are working together on shared stories.

What makes this project even more interesting is that it's bilingual. The Père-Vimont kids have been writing in English; the Coutland Park kids, in French. And they've all been studying a third language too: ART!

Here's a pic from today's visit:

For many of the students, learning about drawing and in particular, illustrating a graphic novel, was their favourite part of the project. That's what Caleb and Majdouline told me today, during our final visit to Père-Vimont. Youssef learned a lot about drawing too, but you can imagine I was pleased when he said, "Writing makes me happy." Me too, Youssef!!

In their stories, the students have been writing and drawing about a pair of red-headed twins who get separated when they are infants. The twins grow up speaking different languages. When they meet up again, in the students' stories, things get interesting!

All the graphic novels the students have been working on will be published in a collection that will be released this spring. And there'll be a book launch too -- and you can come! As Leticia told me, "It was fun to write with kids from another school. We can't wait to meet them!"

Special thanks to Blue Met for making this project possible, and to the super teachers who made our visits a success, Miss Annie at Père-Vimont, and Monsieur Geoffrey at Courtland Park. Congrats and félicitations to all the students for your hard work -- and great ideas!

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The Meilleur Kind of Travail Together

The bilingual title of today's blog entry "The Meilleur Kind of Travail Together" is in honour of an amazing bilingual Blue Metropolis project I've been working on together with graphic novelist Laurence Dionne.

That's Laurence behind me in today's pic. We spent the morning at Courtland Park International School in St. Bruno, and on Friday, we'll be at Ecole Père-Vimont in Laval. We've been working in French with the Courtland students, and in English with the kids at Père-Vimont. Together, the students are working on graphic novels about a pair of twins -- one English-speaking, and one French -- who were separated at birth.

Here's a fun thing about collaborating on creative work. I don't remember who came up with the idea for this project! I think it was William St-Hilaire, president of the Blue Metropolis Foundation, the organization behind the project. But Fréderick Gaudin-Laurin, who is managing the project for Blue Met, thinks it was MY idea! See, that's what happens when people work well together ... we don't even remember who thought of what!

The students' graphic novels are nearly done -- and they'll be published in 2020. Also, we're going to have a bilingual launch-lancement.

Today, the Courtland Park students worked on a group poem describing themselves and their experience with the project. Our first draft of the poem included the line, "we speak two languages: français and English." But then a student named Olivier came up with the very good suggestion that we change the line to, "we speak two languages: French and anglais." I told the students that it struck me as more playful to name the language using another language! And they all agreed!

While Laurence was showing the students tricks for transferring their drawings onto the computer, she needed to return to a previous slide. A student named Juliet called out, "Tu peux back-er up."

I once heard that the most bilingual people are capable of thinking in two languages -- and that sometimes it happens it one sentence -- like it did for Juliet when she invented the French verb "back-er up"!

I think you'll be impressed when you see the kids' drawings and read their stories. We'll be at Père-Vimont on Friday -- to finish up the story of the twins. Special thanks to the wonderful teachers -- Mr. Geoffrey at Courtland Park, and MIss Annie at Père-Vimont... and to the students for their wonderful "travail" together!

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An "Ah Ha" Moment at Rosemere High School

Today's blog is about an "Ah ha" moment -- the kind of moment where something just clicks. You suddenly understand a concept that didn't make a lot of sense to you before.

Here's a pic I took of Samuel having an "Ah ha" moment. (Actually, to be completely honest -- I only lie when I am writing FICTION -- it's a photo taken a few seconds after the "Ah ha" moment, but I asked Samuel to do his best to replicate his "Ah ha" expression and hand gesture).

You will be wondering of course what Samuel was ah-ha-ing about. I'm just getting to that!

I was at Rosemere High School this morning to work with two groups of enriched English students. Samuel was in the first group -- their teacher is Miss Enea. I had asked the students to write about a memory from when they were ten years old. I told them they didn't have to let me read it because I know that sometimes these memories feel too private to share. When I walked past Samuel, he was hiding the paragraph he'd written. So I explained that there are creative ways to take difficult personal material and transform it into literature. "Why not," I suggested, "make whatever happened to you happen to someone else -- a kid who isns't named Samuel, who isn't in Sec. II at Rosemere High?" -- that's when Samuel had his "Ah ha" moment. It was also a happy moment in my happy day today.

Miss Enea explained that not all the students in her class were enriched. And though I'm not supposed to have favourites, I found one today -- Tommy, a lively young man who told me he wasn't in the enriched stream. But when I finished my workshop, he stopped to say, "You enriched me!" Hey Tommy, you enriched me! I never had a son, but I think if I had one, I'd have liked him to be like Tommy!

I told the class how trouble makes a story interesting, and I said, "We don't want to read about someone's perfect life." A student named Angelina (hey Angelica, made an interesting point. She said, "I think it WOULD be interesting to read a story about someone's perfect life." Then we discussed how, for a story like that to work, we'd probably need to learn that the supposedly perfect life was not so perfect.

After recess, I visited Ms. Fazia's Sec. I's. They were quiet at first, but wow, were they ever focused! I gave them a writing exercise I usually only use with CEGEP students: to write about the hardest thing they've ever gone through. Somehow, I felt that these students could handle the topic. On my drive home, I was thinking I should also have asked them to describe HOW THEY GOT THROUGH THEIR MOST DIFFICULT MOMENT. (So Miss Fazia, if you're reading this -- tell them to add a paragraph for me.)

While the students were working, I told them how I believe writing takes courage, and that sometimes, the stories that are hardest for us to tell are our most important stories, and the ones we really need to tell. And as I explained to Samuel, if it gets too hard to write, change things up. That's what fiction writers do. It's the feelings that have to be real.

So... if today's blog entry was a little more intellectual than my usual blog entry, it's not my fault. Blame those enriched students at Rosemere -- for being so smart. Special thanks to my friend, Rosemere High teacher Ms. Lawrence for arranging my visit, and for coming to hear me speak for the one hundredth time and not being bored. Thanks also to Ms. Enea and Ms. Fazia -- and to all the students.

Here's to courage!


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Re-writing is Writing! Back at McCaig Elementary...

Ever have one of those mornings that goes so quickly, you don't know where it went? It could be that I had TWO espressos this morning, but it might also have been the influence of Mrs. Fraser's wonderful class at McCaig Elementary in Rosemere.

Artist Thomas Kneubuhler and I were back at McCaig for our second writing and photography workshop -- part of a wonderful Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Quebec Roots. Teams of writers and photographers are helping students across the province tell stories about their communities using words and photos.

Speaking of which... here's a photo!

In today's pic I'm editing -- okay, I'm taking a wee break from editing to chat with a student ABOUT EDITING!

Thomas and I were at McCaig for three hours, and while Thomas looked at photos and took photos with the students, I pulled little groups out to another small room and we edited the pieces they had written on the topic of SECRET PLACES. (The students came up with that topic during our first visit earlier this fall.)

The thing about writing is that it INVOLVES A TON OF RE-WRITING. I've spent the last three weeks rewriitng a project of my own. I find it hard work, but it's so satisfying when the work starts to get better.

What made today extra fun is that the students were receptive to my comments, and that we really worked together in teams to improve the writing.

Here's a small example. Consider the following phrase "caramel in the center of a chocolate." Now do you prefer "gooey caramel in the center of a chocolate" or "caramel in the center of a delicious chocolate"?

I hope you picked "gooey caramel"!! Because we discussed all three options and decided that the word "gooey" goes a long way to describe caramel. Unlike the word "delicious," which is, as I told the students a "blah blah" word!

A student named Lily wrote a beautiful piece about feeling comforted and inspired by nature. She included the line, "Think of tulips standing strong and tall" ... I had a wee suggestion here. Why not add the word "proud"? Lily thought that worked, so we changed the line to, "Think of tulips standing strong and tall and proud." We could have dropped one of those "and's", but I like the rhythm. What do you think?

That's another thing about writing. There's never a clear right or wrong. But it's challenging and fun to figure out what works best and sounds best.

I asked a student named Michael to tell me what he learned about editing today, and he answered, "You need to reread it a lot of times!" That's for sure, Michael!

So keep your eyes peeled for the 2020 edition of Quebec Roots, a real-live published book which will be launched this spring, and which will include a chapter from Mrs. Fraser's class at McCaig. Thanks to all of you for being more delicious than espresso!

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The Moniques Are Back in Action!

The Moniques -- in case you are not familiar with this fabulous team!! -- consist of myself and my good pal photographer Monique Dykstra.

We've been teamed up several times over the years to work on Quebec Roots, a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project that brings a writer and photographer to English-language schools across the province. We help students tell a story in words and photos about their community -- and their chapter will be published in sping 2020 in the form of a real-live book!

That's me in today's pic with some of the students at William Latter School in Chambly. Sorry you don't get to see the other Monique -- she was out in the schoolyard teaching the kids about photography. Apparently, after only one mini-lesson, they were already taking impressive shots!

We worked with Miss Kim's Grade 5/6 class. Miss Kim had done a great job preparing the students, who understood that today we had to decide on a topic for their chapter. We started off with two topics: emotional troubles, and finding your passion. To our surprise, as the result of the democratic process, the students chose to focus on emotional troubles -- definitely a tough topic that will require courage!

I had to laugh when a student named Amy guessed I was Monique-the-author. She told me, "I knew you were the author because Miss Kim said you have a lot of energy!"

I wrote down some of Monique D's lessons about photography -- because they apply to writing too. She told the students, "When you're taking photos, you have to listen to the voice in your head that says, 'Oh this is a good photo!'" She also told them, "The trick in life is to keep looking at thing with fresh eyes." Beautiful, no? Now you know why I love being friends with her -- because she says such cool stuff!

We divided the class into groups so that each Monique would have time to work on her speciality with the students. In my groups, we worked on stories and poems. A student named Emil gave me permission to quote his work here. He was writing about a difficult time in his life -- after he first learned that his mom had cancer (she's dong great now, thank goodness!). He ended his piece with the sentences, "It felt good to write this poem/ I never really shared this with people."

I told the students that when I hear or read something beautiful and important, I get goosebumps. Emil, Molly and Emmanuel, your three stories all gave me goosebumps today. I'm already looking forward to our return visit. Something tells me yours is going to be a wonderful chapter. Thanks to all the kids, thanks to Miss Kim for being so organized, and thanks to Blue Met for giving the Moniques the opportunity to have so much fun!



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Quebec Roots Kicks Off A New Season

If you've been following my blog for a while, you'll know I have an especially soft soft-spot for a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Quebec Roots. I've been involved in the project for more than ten years. It brings together English-speaking students from across our province with a writer and photographer. Which explains what I was doing this morning at McCaig Elementary School with artist-photographer Thomas Kneubuhler and Ms. Fraser's wonderful Grade Five class. (It also explains why I look so happy in this photo, taken with a student named Christopher.)

I gave a mini-writing workshop and Thomas gave a mini-photography workshop, but mostly our task was to help the students come up with a topic for their chapter, which will be published in a real-live book this spring. Thomas and I will help the kids use photos and words to tell a story about their community.

The kids came up with several good topics, but thanks to democracy, they decided on SECRET PLACES. I like this topic a lot because it combines two of my favourite things: secrets and places! We did some brainstorming, some writing, and we also went out for a walk during which the students took some great pictures.

I liked when Thomas told the class, "You have to play." He meant that you have to move around when you take photos -- see what the shot looks like when you are on the ground, or stretched out on a table. I think writers need to play too -- and also work hard! I asked a student named Laurence what she learned about writing, and she told me: "I learned it takes more than one day to write!" That's definitely true for me, Laurence!

A student named Krystal learned something similar about photography. As Krystal put it, "You have to take more than one photo. The first one isn't always perfect."

I liked how Ms. Fraser gave the students this advice when they were taking photos: "Think about telling a story." YES YES and YES! (Did you hear me say YES?!)

We wrote a group poem about the class gecko whose name is Ronnie. It turns out he has a secret place too -- under the paper towel he is supposed to poop on!

I guess it was a day for poop jokes because Dante made us all laugh with the story of his little cousin, who, at a family dinner, made such a big poop that "it exploded and got on her shirt." Uh oh!

A student whom I'll call K described her secret place as "a lot more Zen." (I think K should write a poem and call it "A Lot More Zen.") And Laurence, whom I mentioned before, said, "I like being alone and quiet." Laurence, you can use that line in your writing too.

So I'd say the 2019-2020 edition of Quebec Roots is off to a great start. Thanks to Blue Met for making the project happen, thanks to Thomas for being a super partner, and thanks to Ms. Fraser and your class for being FUN and SMART. (My favourite combination!)

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Recycling Kids at Joliette High School

The Secondary I students at Joliette HIgh School were a little creeped out this morning when I told them that I recycle kids. Logan shuddered, and a student named Benoit said, "It made me think you'd put us in one of those recycling machines that would squish us up!"

But, as I explained to the students, that's what writers do. We recycle life experiences, and that includes the places we go and the people we meet, into our books!

Here's a pic from today's visit.

 If you're wondering why I look so happy, it isn't only because the three groups of students I worked with were fun, focused and had loads of good questions. It's also because their teacher (she's the lovely young woman standing next to me), Ms. Beddia, USED TO BE MY STUDENT!

Here are a few highlights from today's visit. I loved what a student named Lyana wrote when I asked students to reflect on how they feel about writing: "I kinda like writing because you can put your feelings into another character." Exactly, Lyana! In that way, writing helps us gain distance from our own feelings, which can get pretty complicated sometimes. And another thing you can try to do when you write is imagine being someone with completely different feelings. For instance, I could try imagining what it would like to be SHY (if you know me, you will know I am extremely un-shy!).

When I asked the class to write about a memory of being five years old, Logan wrote a lovely paragraph about playing hide 'n seek with his brother, and getting trapped in a closet. I asked Logan's permission to share it with you here. "I couldn't get out. I was laughing because I thought he was holding it [the door] closed. When I heard his footsteps, I knew the door was locked and I started to worry." Excellent suspense there, Logan!

At lunch, a student named Bianca came to show me a story she's been writing called "An Amazing Weekend." I told Bianca she's a fine writer, who writes excellent sentences, but that she needs to focus more on individual scenes and also include some feelings. Also I have to admit I was touched when I got to the end of Bianca's story and read these words: "Thank you so much Monique Polak for reading my text. It means the world to me." Well, Bianca, thanks for sharing your story, for hanging out with me at lunch, and also for showing me the shortcut out of the school. Thanks to you, I did not get stuck in traffic on the way home.

After lunch, I worked with two more classes. I asked the first group to practise their observation skills by observing something or someone interesting in the classroom. Joey observed that a student named Doriano wasn't doing the exercise! Then I observed that Doriano has the kind of smile tht must make it easy for him to get away with stuff!

The last class was super lively. A student named Shawn asked me if the cardboard thingy I was handing out was a bookmark. When I told him that yes it was, Shawn said, "YESSSSS!" A student named Charly (love that name, I think it must be short for Charlene) wanted to know how many drafts I write for every book. I told her it's got to be at least 50 if you count all the re-writing I do at my computer before my editor gives me a whole new set of comments and suggestions for improving the manuscript.

A student named Michael wanted to know which of my books was my favourite. I told him that that's like asking a parent which child is her favourite. Then Nathan called out, "It's always the youngest!" Very funny, Nathan... and guess what I found out? Nathan is the eldest of three siblings!

So thanks, you guys for a wonderful day. Thanks to Ms. Emond for helping to arrange the visit, and to Ms. Beddia for being wonderful with her students and also with her former teacher!

Keep writing, all of you. Stay out of trouble in your lives, but include trouble in your stories. I feel lucky that I got to hang out with all of you today!

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Rabbits and Other Friends at Birchwood Elementary

As you will probably have noticed, I like to include pics in my posts. Usually, they're pics of the kids I meet when I do school visits. Today's a first -- because it's a pic of me meeting a rabbit. Actually two rabbits. The one in my arms is Stella; the one in teacher Miss Nathalie's arms is Stark. Stella and Stark are a couple and they're expecting a litter of baby rabbits next week.

The student in the foreground is Joel. (There are two dots over the e in his name, but I don't know where to find them on my keyboard!) (Also, more about Joel later.)

I was at Birchwood to work with three groups. The first were Madame Manon and Miss Nathalie's Grade Fives; then I had more of Miss Nathalie's Grade Fives with Mrs. Roberts's Grade Fives, and I finished with Miss Sellitto's Grade Sixes (they had met me last year, so we did LOTS of writing exercises).

You know how I like OBSERVING and how I tell kids that writers need to be OBSERVANT? Well I observed how one student had a very cool birthmark, not quite on the center of his forehead. Then I showed the students how writers like to play a game I call WHAT IF? What if, I asked them, that birthmark had super powers? And I showed them the birthmark near the side of my mouth, and told them that the doctor once offered to remove it, but I said ABSOLUTELY NOT. (Maybe it gives me super powers!!)

When we talked about how older people have the best stories, a student named Léanne said that when she sees old people, she wonders, "who, what, where and how long they've been together." Great work, Léanne. That's thinking like a writer!

In the first group, I heard a lot of grandparent stories. That happens to me sometimes -- that I meet a group and many of them have an important thing in common. Several of these students were mourning their grandparents' deaths. That's a hard thing to have to go through, but it makes for great stories. Also, by remembering the people we have loved who have died, and by finding out their STORIES, then sharing those stories.. well, I see it as a way of bringing them back to life.

For second period, I went to Miss Nathalie's classroom where I met Stella and Stark. I played the WHAT IF? game with these students too. What if, I asked the kids, a sinister visitor came to their classroom and she was a chef who wanted to try out her recipe for rabbit stew? What if she tried to steal Stella? Then what?!! (I personally think it would make an interesting book.)

When I talked about the importance of rewriting, I explained that my first drafts are ALWAYS JUNK. Why, I asked the students, is that GOOD? Joel (featured in today's pic) had the perfect answer: "It's good because you can see what you did wrong and switch it up." Gorgeous words, Joel! Perfect description of the revision process!

I ended my morning with Miss Sellitto's Grade Sixes, whom, as I explained before, had met me last year. So I zipped through my writing tips and gave them several (I think four) writing exercises. A student named Leonardo gave me permission to share what he came up with when I asked the students to imagine the story they most need to read. Leonardo wrote: "People are scary when they are mad. People are scary when they are big. But people aren't scary when they are kind."

I find Leonardo's writing powerful, intriguing and poetic. When I told him so, he said something that made me just as happy as his beautiful writing. He said. "I guess it's from reading a lot."

So here's to rabbits and rabbit babies, and wonderful students, and writing exercises and reading a lot and telling stories! Special thanks to all my friends (human and non-human) at Birchwood, to the teachers for being wonderful, to the students for wow-ing me, and to librarian Miss Hausen for the invite!

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Les Jumeaux Continuent Leurs Aventures!

If you're wondering why the title of today's blog entry is en français, it's because this morning cartoon artist Laurence Dea Dionne and I worked in French at Courtland Park International School in St-Bruno. We were there to introduce Monsieur Geoffrey's Grade Six class to a wonderful Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called The Mysterious Story of the Twins Next Door.

Here's a pic of Laurence, Monsieur Geoffrey and me with some of the kids in the class.

These students are partnered up with an English class at Ecole Père-Vimont in Laval. Both groups will be using words and images to finish a story (that I started) about two red-headed twins who are adopted -- one by an English-speaking family, and one by a French family.

If you read Monday's blog entry, you'll know that Miss Annie's class at Père-Vimont came up with super ideas for how the twins could meet up and get into some trouble that would make for an interesting comic! Today, the students had great ideas too. One group is planning for the girl twin to grow up and become a cop -- who arrests the boy twin for speeding! Another group plans to pit the two twins against each other in an art contest. Cool, n'est-ce-pas?

I took some notes about the wonderful lessons Laurence shared with the class today. She told them to think about EMOTION, ACTION and PLACE in their drawings. You know what, Laurence? I am going to think about that stuff too when I get back to my book-writing (hopefully on Monday!!). She also suggested the students play with perspective in their drawings, telling them, "You're a cameraman. Zoom in. Zoom out." I think writers can use that advice too. Sometimes we want to zoom in on a moment in a character's life, or a tiny detail in the scenery... other times, we need to zoom out and look at the bigger picture.

Special thanks to Monsieur Geoffrey for sharing your class with us, and to school principal Monsieur Couture for coming to sit in on our workshop. And thanks to the kids for working hard and having great ideas. A bientot, les amis!!

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Meet My Fellow Author Deborah Kalb

One of the many fun things about being an author is that you get to meet other authors! Over the years, I've been lucky enough to have struck up friendships with several fellow authors including Rina Singh, Raquel Rivera, Karen Spafford-Fitz and now, Deborah Kalb.

I get to hang out with Rina, Raquel and Karen in person, but so far, I've only met Deborah on-line. That's because she interviewed me for her blog about kids' books! Over the years, Deborah has done Q&A's with hundreds of kids' book authors... so I decided I should interview HER. And it turns out we have a lot in common. Like me, Deborah has a background in journalism and now writes for kids. I was especially interested to learn that she has co-authored a book with her dad. If you want to find out how that went, you'll need to read my Q&A with Deborah. Also, I left out the part where I invited her for dinner next time she's in Montreal -- but if she does turn up, you can be sure I will blog about it!

Here's the Q&A. I think you'll enjoy meeting Deborah too!

Q: You spent 20 years as a journalist with, for example Gannett and US News and World Report. What made you decide to move into the world of children’s literature?

A: It was kind of a gradual transition. My first book once I left daily journalism was for adults, and involved history and presidents. I had always wanted to write fiction, and had various mystery novel manuscripts stashed away in boxes and closets. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I remember how much I loved to read as a kid, and I decided to combine all my interests into one!

My first book for kids was George Washington and the Magic Hat. It’s a middle-grade novel about Sam, a modern-day boy in Bethesda, Maryland, who finds an antique tricornered hat in the gift shop at Mount Vernon, GW’s home. The hat ends up taking him on various adventures back to the 18th century. GW and the Magic Hat is the start of a series featuring a classroom of fifth graders who have magical time travel adventures while also dealing with current-day issues. Each book is from the perspective of a different kid, and features a different president from the past.

Q: Your latest kids’ book is The President and Me: John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead (Schiffer 2018). Why did you want to write about John Adams?

A: The short answer is that I’d written the first book about George Washington, and John Adams is the second president so he was a natural for book two!

The longer answer is that writing about John Adams—and his wife, early feminist Abigail Adams--was a fascinating experience. He was a far quirkier personality than George Washington—he was quite irascible and short-tempered and didn’t suffer fools gladly. The time travel device in this book is a bobblehead of John Adams that my characters Ava and J.P. buy at the John Adams visitor center in Quincy, Massachusetts, and it ends up talking and taking them back to meet the entire Adams family, including John Quincy Adams, John and Abigail’s son who ended up becoming the sixth president. Yes, there are presidential bobbleheads! My family got one at the John Adams visitor center.

Q: Who’s the next president you plan to write about?

A: Book three, Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat, is set for publication next year. Thomas Jefferson was the third president, so you can see that I’m going in order here! I’m now writing book four, about James and Dolley Madison. I try to include as many women as possible, and Dolley Madison, like Abigail Adams, is definitely worth writing about.

Another featured character in the Jefferson book, book three, is Madison Hemings, the enslaved son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Q: You co-authored the book Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama (Brookings 2011) with your dad Marvin Kalb. Your dad was a long-time journalist too. What lessons did you learn from him about writing? 

A: Throughout my life, I have always learned so much from my father, and I’m still learning from him today. He’s been a role model when it comes to clarity in writing, ethical journalism, and strength of character. Writing the book with him was a special experience for me, and our road trips for book events were wonderful. I’m so glad we could work on a book that combined our interests and allowed me to hear more of his ever-fascinating stories about his lengthy career as a reporter and writer!

Q: How did you and your dad divide the work? Did you argue during the process?

A: He focused on the part involving foreign policy, while I focused on the political and biographical sections. We sent the chapters back and forth and edited voraciously! Yes, there were some arguments, but it all worked out in the end!

Q: Is there a connection for you between journalism and writing for kids? Can you explain it?

A: Yes. I think especially in today’s world, where facts and history are often twisted to score political points, that learning about history is more important than ever. The role of journalists, now under attack, is also more important at a time when the U.S. president considers reporters enemies of the people. My hope is that kids can learn to appreciate history and that in turn will help them become informed consumers of news in these troubled times.

Q: Why do you blog about kids’ books? 

A: I started my blog, Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, back in 2012. It reflects my own interests, which are quite eclectic. I interview authors of books for kids and adults—fiction, history, mysteries, memoirs, cultural issues, sports, science: you name it! I always enjoy interacting with authors—like you! --and I learn so much from the whole experience.

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New Week, New Project!

It's a new week, and I've embarked on a new project. I'm just home from Ecole Père-Vimont in Laval, where I worked with wonderful comic book artist Laurence Dea Dionne and a super group of sixth graders taught by the also super Ms. Lizotte.

Laurence and I were at the school to introduce a new Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called The Mysterious Story of the Twins Next Door. What's especially exciting about this project is that it's happening in two languages. The Père-Vimont students for whom English is a second language, will be working with students at Courtland Park International School in Saint-Bruno, whose second language is French. The French students will be writing in English; the English students will be writing in French. And our project is bilingual in another way too since the kids will be expressing themselves in the language of words and also pictures!!

Speaking of pictures, that's a pic of us with the kids this morning!

We gave the kids a start to a story -- two twins are separated when they are babies. One, a girl, is brought up speaking English; her brother is raised speaking French. Now we're leaving it to our students to complete the story!

I did a mini-mini-writing workshop (but I don't have to tell you about that today)... that's because you really want to hear about what Laurence taught the kids! One of the first lessons she shared was, "In and out." She explained how, "You take in ideas and your create things to let them out." I LOVED THAT LESSON!

Like me, Laurence believes in doing research. She told us how, when she was first trying to draw a lion, she Googled lions to see images of them.

And there's another way of looking at things that Laurence and I have in common. I tell students that if they think their first draft is terrible, it's a sign they could become professional writers. Laurence told the students, "If you think you're bad at drawing it's because you have a different style!" I wish someone had told me that when I was a kid making drawings. So the solution for both drawing and writing is TO KEEP DOING IT!!

On Friday, Laurence and I go the Courtland Park, where the students will start their own stories about the twins. Then, in a couple fo weeks, the Père-Vimont students will finish the stories begun at Courtland Park (and vice versa). All this gets a bit mathematical for me to explain... but let's just say the stories -- told in two languages, and in both words and pictures -- are going to be great.

Here's a little sneak preview of some of the great ideas the students came up with today. One group decided the twins will end up being neighbours! Another group decided the twins will meet in New York City, on top of the Empire State Building. And another group will let the twins meet up at a reunion for the orphanage, where they spent the first months of their lives.

So I'd say we had an amazing start to this project. I'll keep you posted on our progress! In the mean time, here's to words and images -- and every kind of storytelling in every possible language!


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Last of Four Writing Workshops at Laval Junior Academy

Hello blog readers! I just finished up the last of four workshops at Laval Junior Academy. Today, I was in the library with Ms. Farrell's Grade Sevens and Ms. Milea's Grade Eights. Like yesterday, we focused mostly on writing exercises (since the students already know my writing tips!).

In today's pic, you may notice that I am dressed for a run -- that's because before I started the workshops, I went for a run with Ms. Farrell and Ms. Milea! (They're in the pic too!) Lucky me!

Hey, it wasn't my idea for the kids to hold some of my books -- it was their idea!

I'll start by telling you how the librarian, Ms. Venditti, told me jokingly that she has "the memory of a goldfish." I said that would make a great book title! Also, it makes me wonder -- what exactly do goldfish remember? Good book material, no?!

One exercise I tried involved starting with an ordinary moment and adding an extraordinary twist. Pravin wrote, "I am on the bus and there was a fight and the bus crashed into a tree." Great imagination, Pravin! Now add some details. Who was fighting and about what? Did the crash happen because the bus driver tried to stop the fight?

Sebastiano came up with this twist: "I'm in my living room watching the movie Batman, when the scene was over and Batman shows up." I like it, don't you?

I also asked the students to write about writing! Franco wrote, "I am tired and not in the mood for writing this morning. I'd rather be home sleeping or watching TV." Samuel wrote something which, as you will understand, was a little more to my taste: "I can't think of anything I would rather do right now."

But you know what? What Franco wrote was good too! That's because as I told the students, HONEST writing -- writing that comes from TRUE FEELINGS -- is always powerful.

Okay, thanks to the students at LJA (especially those who were on their best behavior), and to Ms. Venditti for hosting me, and to Ms. Farrell and Ms. Milea for arranging my visit -- and sharing your students with me -- and for the run!!



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"Re-hello" at Laval Junior Academy

Do you know what a neologism is? I love neologisms -- they are invented words. So today's blog entry title "'Re-hello' at Laval Junior Academy" features a neologism invented by my friend, English teacher Ms. Milea. "Re-hello" was the perfect word to describe my experience today because I had a chance to do a second set of writing workshops with LJA students with whom I'd worked two weeks ago.

You are no doubt wondering what Justin is doing in today's pic. In one of the writing exercises I tried with the students, I asked them to use one of their five senses to describe something in the classroom. When I turned around, Justin was smelling his sweatshirt. "It smells like Tide," he told me, which I think is an excellent description. Definitely worth using in a story!

I worked with two of Ms. Milea's Grade 8 English classes. In the first class, there was an exciting, story-worthy event! Ms. Milea introduced a new student named Abigail. I told the class that in stories, interesting things happen when a new character comes knocking at the door, or is sitting at the back table in your classroom. It turns out Abigail is into stories. She told me, "I just read too many books this summer." Abigail, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TOO MANY BOOKS!!

During another exercise, a student named Leah wrote about a girl named Hannah. When I asked if I could take a peek at Leah's story, she told me, "It's bad." That's when I had to explain to the whole class that first drafts ARE ALWAYS BAD -- that's why they're first drafts! Keep revising, Leah, and I guarantee you that Hannah's story will get better and better.

A student named Adam wrote a powerful piece about his grandafther who "lost both legs during World War II." Adam, even if your grandfather and grandmother are dead, you need to learn more about your grampa's story -- so that you can share it with readers. Something tells me it will be a story about survival, resilience and love (all big topics)!

I didn't have much time for taking notes in the second class. That's because I was busy reading stories the students had written since my last visit! YAY!!! But I did jot down Sofia's question: "What if you get writer's block?" I explained that if I get writer's block (I don't usually), I WOULD KEEP WRITING. I compared it to when I am out for a run and I get a stitch in my side. Unless it's appendicitis, I KEEP WRITING!

I'll be back at LJA tomorrow to finish up my writing workshops there. Looking forward to reading lots more stories!

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The Taste of Rain Goes to Girl Guide Camp!

My latest historical nove, The Taste of Rain (Orca Book Publishers), tells the story of a heroic Girl Guide troop imprisoned in China during the Second World War. So it felt fitting to launch the book yesterday at the Quebec Girl Guides Fall Fun Day at Camp Wa-Thik-Ane in Morin Heights, about an hour north of Montreal.

You have probably noticed that I look very happy in today's pic. That's because I WAS very happy. I did two mini-writing workshops with some of the Girl Guides, and I signed nearly 200 copies of the book. Some people get tired from hanging out with kids. Not me! I get energy from them!

Before they came to Fall Fun Day, the girls got a "kit list" -- of things they needed to pack. I was impressed that pencil and paper were part of the requirements! YAY!

Many of the Guides I met already have an interest in reading and writing. Naima, who's ten, told me, "I love writing. I want to be an author." And when I asked the girls why I never ever hand in my first draft to my editor, Lina (who is also ten) said, "It's probably because your first draft is too clichéd and sappy." I thought that was a pretty sophisticated answer for someone who's ten! Like Naima, Lina also enjoys writing. She told me, "It's cool to make a world out of the tip of your pencil."

It was a rainy day -- which also added to the special-ness! Who wants to launch a book called The Taste of Rain in sunny weather?!

Apparently, some of the Guides were spotted reading my book in the rain! Looking forward to hearing what they think of it! Many thanks to the Girl Guides of Canada -- Quebec Council for letting me come to Fall Fun Day; thanks to Babar Books for handling book sales; and thanks to the Guides for making me feel so happy and at home. Also, I really enjoyed my Taco-in-a-bag for lunch, and my first ever S'mores! GIRL GUIDES RULE!!!



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Another Sweet Day at Centennial Academy

I was back at Centennial Academy today -- doing writing workshops with four groups of students, many of whom I had met before... so I tried to shake things up and test out some new writing exercises!

It isn't right to have favourites... but I must say I have a few at Centennial. One is Massimo, who told us a fascinating story about how his great-great-grandfather who worked doing construction in Italy was poisoned during wartime. Massimo included some excellent DETAILS, such as that his great-great-grandfather was "so so thirsty," which led him to drink water that had posion in it. I suggested Massimo turn this tragic story into a piece of writing. And because Massimo has a great imagination, he came up with the idea of adding a time travel element. He was thinking of including himself in the story! I was telling the students how I love asking myself WHAT IF? when I am inventing stories, and Massimo commented, "There's 'what if's' everywhere to me!" Way to go, Massimo!

A student named Ethan stole my heart with his sense of humour. After a writing exercise, I asked the students at his table, "Did you guys produce anything?" -- to which Ethan replied, "I may produce a sneeze in a minute!" You know what, Ethan? I'm going to STEAL that line and put it in one of my books! (We writers love to steal!!)

Later, when the students wanted to know whether their teacher Ms. McNaughton was married, and she didn't reveal her marital status, a student named Michael called out, "You'd have to ask her husband if he's married!" Good one, Michael!

A student named Nikolas remembered that last year, I suggested the students find someone old to interview -- because older people have the most stories. Nikolas also made me laugh when he said he tried to interview his grandmother, but she told him, "I'm not old!"

I had a very special lunch period in the lounge, chatting with students who were eating their lunches. Renee and I discussed the self-doubt that comes with being a writer and facing the blank page; Massimo told me that, "Even if you are 59 going on 60, I hope you do not retire from making books"; and a computer wizard named Will helped me out when I told him that the main character in the book I am writing needs to find a way to outsmart a security camera system. Thanks, Will!

Thanks to all the kids for being super wonderful. That includes you Bouchard (I'm stealing your name for a future book too), and to your teachers Ms. Granitto, Mr. Pepin, Ms. Marquise, Mme. Ferland, Ms. Traynor and Ms. McNaughton for sharing your kids with me today. Another thanks to Ms. McNaughton for arranging my visit. I'll miss all of you! In the mean time, keep writing, keep reading, keep being kind and funny!








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Full Heart After My Morning at Centennial Academy

I'm just home from a happy morning at Centennial Academy, where I worked with four groups of fun, inquisitive students. I know they're inquisitive because they never ran out of questions!

Here's a picture of some of the students doing a writing exercise!

Centennial Academy is a private school where many of the students have learning challenges -- but I must say that every time I work with them they fill my heart. If you ask me, we all have learning challenges, and we're all unique. In fact, as a writer that's exactly what I try to do in my stories -- come up with unique characters with their own traits, idiosyncracies, strengths and weaknesses.

So let me tell you about some of the highlights of this morning's visit.

I loved when a student named Idam (hey, did I get the spelling right, Idam? if not, send me a note in the comment section and I'll correct it) told me, "I skipped to the end of your book Finding Elmo because I was dying to know what happened!" Though I generally disapprove of skipping to the end of a book, I am happy that Idam was that interested in knowing the ending!!

I loved the following exchange between Nate and Noah after I suggested they interview old people to learn their secrets: Nate said, "I don't like old people. They're too strict." To which Noah replied, "Some old people are kind and give you money." Later, Alex added that old people tell young people stuff because, "they want young people to learn for when they're older." Lovely lovely insight, Alex!

I loved when, during a writing exercise, Oksana wrote movingly about her grandfather's death. She wrote, "It was very hard to let him go." I found that line sooo beautiful and honest.

I loved when a student named McRelis (cool name!) told me that she publishes stories on Wattpad: "I focus on problems in society and I like to include LGBTQ characters." Way to go, McRelis!  Good for you for being as inclusive as possible in your stories!

I loved, when I was discussing how important it is to read, a student named Zia told me, "I always read to my little sister." You know what, Zia? I predict that that little sister of yours is going to be a good reader, and also a good writer one day!

And I loved when a student told me he has a youtube channel called kinglightningdragon where he posts his own videos.

If it sounds like I'm happy, it's because I am. I'll be back at Centennial tomorrow. Stay tuned! Special thanks to the kids for being amazing, and to your teachers Ms. Byron, Ms. Bennett, Ms. Grimaud, Ms. Marquise and Ms. McNaughton for sharing you with me!


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Day 2 at Laval Junior Academy

I'm just home from a second day of writing workshops at Laval Junior Academy. I worked with Ms. MIlea's Secondary 2 students and Ms. Farrell's Sec 1's.

I have lots of fun details to share with you today. Hey, one of my writing lessons is that DETAILS matter. We writers need to collect interesting details to make our stories come alive. So here we go....

If you know me, you know I am obsessed with body language (read yesterday's blog for more on that topic). Today I met a student named Matteo who has interesting body language. He knocks his knees together when he's thinking. I coud tell I made him think a lot because he was doing a lot of knee-knocking. You know, Matteo, I may give that trait to one of the characters in my new book project!

A student named Pravin (I added his name to my list of cool names, which I also keep handy for book projects) said stories need "feelings and actions." Great comment, Pravin!

And a student named Antonio asked, "Why do we always need trouble in stories?" (Trouble is one of my favourite subjects.) I told Antonio it's because life is full of trouble, and by reading stories we can learn how to hang on when times get difficult. I also shared my view that trouble is like gasoline (or electricity); it helps move a story forward.

During the writing exercise portion of my workshops, a student named Husain wrote about a memory from when he was growing up in Pakistan. Husain gave me permission to quote him here: "I saw a man with a dagger and he held the dagger to a cow's neck. Afterwards, there was blood everywhere for a week." Great use of details, don't you agree? Husain, keep working on that story -- and show it to me when I'm back at your school in October.

Massimo wrote about his memory of being in Grade Five, and the teacher "handing me a test that I failed." That's another story worth telling, Massimo. A different Massimo described how a "soccer field became a wrestling ring" when a fight broke out. Nicely put, Massimo -- I want to read that story too. And I'll end today's blog entry with a beautiful line that a student named Amanda allowed me to share with you: "I was sitting in a bathroom thinking, 'Will I ever be good enough?'" How's that for the first line of a novel?!

If it sounds like I am excited about today's visit to LJA, it's because I am. I've included a pic of LJA young writers writing. Nothing makes me happier! Write on, kids -- and see you in October. Thanks to the students, their teachers Ms. Milea and Ms. Farrell (who joined me on an early morning run!), and to super librarian, Ms. Venditti!


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Back to School -- Good Morning Laval Junior Academy

I might be on sabbatical from my teaching job at Marianopolis College... but that doesn't mean I'm not back at school. I'm just home from a morning of writing workshops with Sec. 2 students at Laval Junior Academy!

You may be wondering what in the world today's picture is about! Those two students are Massimo and Adam. Well, when I was discussing body language (and how that can be a useful detail for writers to OBSERVE), I happened to notice that Massimon and Adam's hands were in the same position. So I asked if they were friends, and guess what? THEY ARE! (I guessed that because friends often mirror each other's body language.) The picture is my proof that I was CORRECT. (We all enjoy being correct occasionally, don't we?!)

Here are a few highlights from my work today with Ms. Milea's Sec. 2's. I asked the students, "What's the main thing you need to do to improve your writing?" and I was delighted when a student named Jakob came up with the answer I was hoping for: "Write!"

When I was talking about how TROUBLE is the FUEL that helps move a story forward, a student whom I'll call D announced to the class, "My dad left me when I was three." Then D turned to me and asked, "What should I do about it?" My answer was: "WRITE ABOUT IT!" I explained that often, the hardest things we have gone through can provide us with the richest story material. Later, during a writing exercise, a student named Pina, wrote about a difficult memory that took place in a car. "It's too hard to write about it," Pina told me. So because I am full of helpful suggestions, I came up with a suggestion for Pia too. I told her to consider changing things up. Instead of writing about a student who goes to LJA and lives in Montreal, write about someone who's a different age and lives in another paert of the world. But be sure to keep the emotional truth of the story -- because that's what will make readers connect with it.

I worked with two classes this morning. I asked the first class to write about a memory from when they were ten years old. But with the second group, I invented a new exercise. Only I can't take full credit for the exercise. Part of the credit goes to a student named Mia. I was suggesting to the students that for homework (not that I can really assign them homework), they should interview an older person and ask "What is the hardest thing you ever lived through?" -- so Mia raised her hand and asked, "Us?" ... which gave me the idea for the second exercise -- to have students remember -- using all five senses -- the hardes thing they have ever experienced.

I'll be back tomorrow to meet more LJA students, and then I'll be back during the first week of October to work with all of them again. I'm hoping they students I met today will continue working on the stories they started this morning.

Thanks to Ms. Milea and Ms. Farrell for the invite to LJA, and to the students this morning for waking up my brain -- and my heart. I didn't realize how much I've missed the classroom!

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Triple Visit -- Junior Battle of the Books Winners

Get ready because I have to lot to report to you today.

First, let me explain about Battle of the Books -- it's a contest in which teams of students answer questions about selected books. For many years, the Lester B. Pearson School Board has been running a Battle of the Books contest for high school students. This year, for the first time, Lester B introduced the battle at the elementary school level. Teams of Grade Four students from ten schools read a dozen books, and competed by answering questions about those books. The three winning schools were: St. Edmund Elementary, St. John Fisher Senior, and Margaret Manson Elementary. And you'll NEVER GUESS WHAT THE PRIZE WAS!!


(I'm chuckling over here. That's because it's the first time in 59 years that I have been a PRIZE!)

Today, in order to deliver the prize, I did writing workshops for the Grade Four classes at the three prize-winning schools. As you can imagine, I have a lot to report. I'll try to share some of the highlights of my action-paced, super-fun day!

I started out at St. John Fisher Senior in Pointe-Claire, where I worked with 106 students! I managed to get a lot done in 75 minutes -- I covered all my writing tips! A student named Rhys told me, "Sometimes when I don't go to the park, I take paper from school and write stories." And a student named Chloe told me, "I'm writing a thing called My LIfe and I'm on the sixth paragraph." I love hearing about young people who are already hooked on writing. If you guys take writing seriously when you are in Grade Four, imagine how good you'll be when you are my age!

Today's picture was taken at St. Edmund (also in Pointe-Claire), which by the way, won first spot in the Junior Battle of the Books. Here, I met many interesting students, including Ben, who introduced himself to me by saying, "I'm a historian," and Jack, who told me that, "I wrote a book that has nine pages."

In the pic, you'll see a lot of St. Edmund students with their hands raised. That's because I had just asked them, "How many of you hate your first drafts?" And when so many of them said they did, I told the students that hating your first draft could be a sign that you ARE a writer. That's because the real work in being a writer is REWRITING and REWRITING and then REWRITING all over again!

I ended my day at Margaret Manson in Kirkland. You'd think I'd have been exhausted by then, but the students were so wonderful and focused that they re-energized me! Special shout-out to Dorothy and Sidney who came to greet me at the school office, directed me to the bathroom, and who offered me any beverage should I be thirsty. Jokingly, I said, "Have you got vodka?" -- and I was happy when they cracked up!

A student named Philip wanted to know, "For good writing do you mean writing that isn't messy or writing that has good ideas?" I told him the answer is definitely GOOD IDEAS. I also added that if his handwriting is really messy, Philip should consider typing his assignments before he hands them in!

This was the last of my school visits for the academic year, and i must say it was fun to end with such lively, engaged kids. Special thanks to their teachers -- I didn't write down all the names, sorry, but here's what I've got... Mrs. Georgina, Miss Pina, Madame Sophie, Madame Coursol, Miss D and Madame Christina -- special thanks to the students, and double thanks to the members of the Battle of the Books teams, and thanks also to Mrs. Scott, English language consultant at the LBPSB, for taking care of me all day and for getting me coffee-d up at lunch.

I wish all of you a great summer. Keep reading, keep writing, keep asking questions and keep your hearts open so that you can receive stories and also tell them. It was great being your prize!

Signed, Monique

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Lovely Morning at Birchwood Elementary

As soon as I arrived at Birchwood Elementary School this morning, I knew I was in for a happy visit. That's because I was greeted by two Grade Six students: Maya and Breanne, who asked, "How would you like to be addressed?" Fancy question, no? I told the girls they could call me Monique, but I warned them never to tell my students at Marianopolis because they have to call me Miss Polak (until after they graduate!). I asked Maya and Breane, "Did someone tell you to ask me that?" but they said no, they'd thought up the question by themselves!

I did two workshops today -- one for two Grade Five classes, and another for two Grade Sixes. The pic you're looking at is me with the Grade Fives. The teachers are there too -- that's Mrs. Sellitto at the back, and Madame Marilyne on the right. Special shout-out here to Mrs. Sellitto who is a specialist in Holocaust education, a subject which is close to my heart.

Two classes together can be a lot to manage, but all the kids today were terrific. When I asked the students why I take notes while reading, a student whom I'll call L, answered: "to give yourself advice on your stories." I loved how L put that. And yes, you're right, L, I read not only to relax and escape into another world, but also to learn how I can become a better writer.

You know how I like finding interesting things to observe? Well, I noticed how a student named Tyus had a curl stuck to the middle of his forehead. Tyus swore that he did not need mousse or gel to achieve this effect! And his classmates told me something I didn't know: that Superman (from the Superman movie) also has a curl stuck to his forehead.

I was so busy with the Grade Fives that I spent recess working with them too (sorry guys, for making you miss recess!). Afterwards, it was on to a Grade Six classroom, where I worked with Miss Roberts and Madame Manon's students. When I was explaining how trouble makes a story move forward, I gave an example, saying, "What if I wrote a story about a kid who was a great student, who was popular, who had a perfect family, healthy grandparents, and well-behaved pets?" -- at wjhich point a student named Sam remarked, "Said nobody ever!" Clever and funny, Sam! Later, Sam told me he wants to be an author, "or an actor or a gymnast."

There was time with both groups for a writing exercise. I asked a student named Madison for permission to quote a little of what she wrote (the exercise was based on a childhood memory): "I'm outside and I just got stung by a wasp... I run home crying.... My mum had just quit smoking, and I saw her smoking in the backyard. I started to cry even more." Though Madison only had time to write a paragraph, I already love it -- I think because she captures her own emotions: two kinds of pain. Also, I find the paragraph a tender portrait of Madison's love for her mom. Keep writing that story, Madison!

Okay, time for me to do some WRITING. How else will I keep getting invited for school visits if I don't keep writing books? Thanks to the teachers for sharing your wonderful students with me today, thanks to librarian Mrs. Hausen for arranging the visit -- and a special thank you to the the students for being so smart and loveable.



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Another Report from Blue Met: Special Kids at REACH


I do lots and lots of school visits, but today's visit was extra-special. That's because, as part of this year's Blue Metropolis children's festival, I was invited to work with special needs students at REACH in St. Lambert.

I started by telling the students that I think the world needs to hear more stories from special needs kids. And no one can tell them better than the kids themselves! As usual, I talked about the importance of writing and reading. I told the students that they don't have to write three pages a day in a journal the way I do. I even suggested they try writing a word or two a day, and then move on to one or two sentences. As for reading, I told them that some of the very best books in the world are picture books. These are illustrated books with brief texts -- and though they may look simple, they're usually very deep!

We also talked about trouble. I treated my audience pretty much the same way I treat the college students I teach every day. I told them about how TROUBLE makes a story move forward. Stories about someone's perfect day... well ... who wants to read those stories? They're boring!

I asked the students for examples of trouble in their own lives. Angelina, who told me that she keeps a journal, said, "My sister keeps bothering me when I try to draw." (Something that touched me very much today was that on my way out, Angelina asked if she could have a second bookmark -- and guess what? It was for her sister!) One story often reminds us of another. That's what happened when Angelina's story caused Andrew to come up with an example of trouble from his own life. Andrew told us, "My younger brother calls my name when I'm trying to focus."

We also talked about the importance of asking WHAT IF? That's the question that moves stories forward. Jeremy was telling us about a squabble he got into this morning with his dad. When Jeremy mentioned the word "captain," I suggested he might try writing a story about Captain Jeremy, who makes his father salute him when he sees Jeremy!

We also talked about copycats -- which led us to come up with the idea of a book in which a real cat (wearing a blue T-shirt like the one Andrew was wearing today) copies everyone in a class. I must say that idea made the students laugh. And if, as writers or storytellers, you can make your audience laugh... well, then you are definitely succeeding!

As you know, I am always collecting names for future stories. Here are some names I collected today: Donnick, Saud and Marshai.

I read the beginning of my first Princess Angelica book to the kids. And Angelina (whose name is quite close to Angelica's) came up with another book idea for me. "What if she pretends to be an artist?" Angelina suggested. Good idea, Angelina! And see, you used the WHAT IF method!!

Thanks to the students at REACH for opening your hearts to me today. Because of you, my own heart opened a little wider. Thanks to Blue Met for arranging the visit, and thanks to the teachers and support staff for sharing your students with me.


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Reporting in from the Blue Met Kids' Festival

It's my favourite time of year in Montreal -- spring and the start of our city's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

The kids' festival began this week. I spent part of my afternoon today at the Reginald J.P. Lawson Library in Town of Mount Royal, working with three grade five classes from nearby Carlyle School. The first thing I told my audience was how cool the Blue Met Literary Festival is. Over the next ten days, they can attend literary events for kids around the city -- and when they're older, they should definitely check out the grown-up part of the festival! Writers from around the world travel to Montreal to read and be interviewed and take part in panel discussions. (Click on the link in the first paragraph if you want to access this year's festival schedule.)

Today, I focused on my Princess Angelica books. I told the students how I got the idea for the series -- that it was based on a MEMORY of how, when I was eleven, I told the girls at summer camp that I was a princess. Memory, I explained, is an important tool in a writer's toolbox.

I also explained that writers need to be on the hunt for interesting DETAILS. Because I wanted to give a few examples, I pointed out how Serena was lying down with her legs stretched straight out in front of her, how Ian gave me several intelligent nods, and how Chiara was tilting her head to the side when she was looking at me.

A student named Eddy agreed when I said that in my opinion, stories are the most important thing of all. When I asked him why he agreed, Eddy said, "because you can remember what happened before and write something."

A student named Zen (cool name!) told me he has three stories he wants to write, and that one is about his dog who had cancer. I told Zen that that sounds like an important story, one that could help a lot of kids who might be going through a similar experience.

I told the students that soon, I'll be starting the fourth book in the Princess Angelica series -- and this time, I'm going to make Angelica a ski instructor. Several of the kids had zany ideas for me -- and I love zany ideas. I had explained that writers need to ask themselves WHAT IF? ... and the kids demonstrated that, like me, their brains enjoying playing the WHAT IF game.

Thanks to Blue Met for bringing me to the library today, thanks to the library staff for welcoming me (and lending us pencils), thanks to the teachers for sharing your students, and thanks to the students for being wonderful. Now go write and read!!!


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Buzzing After the Imagination Writers' Festival in Quebec City

Don't you love when your mind is BUZZING? That's what my mind has been doing all weekend, and it's still buzzing today. On Saturday, I traveled to Quebec City to take part in the Imagination Wrtiers' Festival at the wonderful Morrin Centre. Not only did I get to present on a panel (that's me with my co-panelists, authors Sheree Fitch and Vicki VanSickle, and that's our amazing moderator, Mary McCown on the far right in today's pic), but I went to four other events too -- and I learned a ton (which explains why my mind is buzzing!!).

So it's hard to know what to tell you first. I took a lot of notes...  because I wanted to be able to tell my students, as well as you, dear blog readers, about what I learned.

Talking about her new novel, The Winnowing, Vicki VanSickle explained the book was her "love letter to the X Files." She also said that in most sci-fi novels for teens, the protagonist wants to save the world. Vicki said she wanted to try something different. "I wanted," she told us, "to write about someone who is interested in saving her friend, not saving the world." Vicki also added that she writes for herself, in particular "my 11-year-old self."

Sheree Fitch is a beloved poet, and she was speaking about her YA novel Gravesavers, which she based on a historical event. Sheree told us she writes slowly, and when she read from Gravesavers, you could hear the poetry in her words. So I was not surprised when Sheree told us, "I read everything out loud." I recommend that tip to my students too, and now I've got proof for them that it works.

I usually focus on writing for kids in this blog, but I need to tell you about some of the other interesting presenters at Imagination. I was deeply moved by journalist Carol Off's talk. First of all, I have to admit that, like many Canadians, I feel as if I know Carol because I listen to her on CBC's As It Happens. Carol was speaking about her work as a foreign correspondent, and about her new non-fiction book, All We Leave Behind: A Reporter's Journey into the Lives of Others. Carol opened her talk with a line I don't think I will ever forget: "A reporter's best moments are when other people are having their worst." During the Q&A period, I asked Carol if she ever stops herself from asking a question she thinks might raise issues her subject would rather avoid. Carol's answer? "There's no question I won't ask if it's something people want to know. People often feel locked. My obligation is to unlock that door."

On Saturday night, I heard CBC Montreal's Nantali Indongo interview two-time Giller prize winner Esi Edugyan. Nantali's questions were great -- and so were Esi's answers. I loved that Esi shared her own struggles with writing. "All my books," she said, "are a mess at the outset." She also told us that, "I write everything with a great sense of anxiety. That's my process." And Esi also spoke about something I've never heard an author mention before -- not in all my years of attending festivals and interviewing authors. She said, "Luck plays a huge part in what happens to a writer." WOW! SO INTERESTING! I'm always telling my students that if they work work work, they will succeed, but now I'm thinking that Esi makes a good point. Luck plays a role too.

I still have MORE to tell you. I'm afraid this is turning into a very long blog entry -- when I really should be working on the book I am writing!!

On Sunday morning, playwright, author, journalist and filmmaker Drew Hayden Taylor spoke about finding humour in tragedy. He told us, "You can explore as much through humour as you can through drama." He also told us that, "structure is 80 per cent of anything you're writing." Another good lesson for my students!

And I ended my weekend in Quebec City with Lorina Mapa's art workshop. Lorina is a graphic novelist whose graphic novel Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos, and Me is based on her life as a teenager growing up in the Philippines. She told us she started the book after her dad's death. "I was trying to capture memories of my father. After my father's death, I felt like I lost myself." For her, drawing and writing helped her find herself again. I found doing Lorina's drawing exercises a combination of hard and fun. But something Lorina said really reached me: ""You do have the ability to tell a story in drawing. You just have to awaken that in yourselves."

So maybe all that buzzing in my brain could be described as something else too -- an awakening.

Thanks to all the writers for their inspiration, thanks to the Morrin Centre staff and volunteers for being amazing. Special shout-out to Barry McCullough, Elizabeth Perreault, Vivianne Carrier and Azanie Roy -- and an extra thanks to Mary McCown for an amazing run on Sunday morning!

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"You mean a good story should come from the heart?" -- Brandon, a Grade Five Student at Michelangelo International Elementary School

The title of today's blog post comes from Brandon -- a Grade Five student at Michelangelo International Elementary School in Rivière-des-Prairies. I was talking about writing when Brandon raised his hand and asked, "You mean a good story should come from the heart and what you've experienced?" Exactly, Brandon!!

This was my third visit to MIES, and my sixth visit to RDP (I've also made three visits to East Hill Elementary which is just a few blocks away). This morning, I worked with Madame Nadia and Miss Giulia's Grade Five classes. The students were wonderful -- focused and fun.

Before I even got started, a student named Nathaniel Cabral announced, "I want to be an author when I grow up." Usually, when I write about students in my blog entries, I don't use their last names. But I decided to use Nathaniel Cabral's. That's because when he makes it as an author, I want you to be able to say, "Hey, I read that first on Monique's blog!"

If you know me, you know that I collect interesting names, interesting body language and interesting hairstyles (all to use with characters in my future books). Well, a student named Florianne supplied all three! First of all, I've never heard the name Florianne before -- and I like it. Secondly, I caught Florianne twirling her pen as if it was a baton (cool body language) and thirdly, she has a very hip hairstyle. (You can check out Florianne's hairstyle in today's pic -- that's her in the middle of the front row.) Florianne was wearing her hair in a bun, and one half of the top of her head is shaven. Definitely book-worthy!!

A student named Angela got excited when I told her my mom had gone to the same school in Amsterdam as Anne Frank -- they were both in grade seven, but in different classes. It turned out that Angela, and another student named Mateo, had done projects on Anne Frank. Impressive!

During a writing exercise I gave the kids, a student named Samuel wrote something interesting and funny about a memory from when he was five years old. Samuel gave me permission to share his work: "I said something bad, but I didn't know what it meant, but I got into trouble." Samuel, I love that story. Your writing makes me feel sorry for the kid you were, but it also makes me laugh. You should write up that story with more details. Other people will love it too!

A special thank you to the students for being amazing, to your teachers for sharing you with me, and to librarian Miss Ida for juggling so many schedules to make my visits to MIES and East Hill work. To all the young writers out there, march over to the dollar store, buy a journal like the one I showed you -- and make writing a HABIT. Love from Monique

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Last Day at East Hill -- Still Having Fun!


If you know me, you know I'm OBSESSED with body language. So that means I'm always on the lookout for new body language -- things I have never seen students do in my 32 years in the classroom. Which explains today's pic. Meet Giancarlo, who, when I turned to look at him, had a spoon hanging out of his mouth! (You will understand why I said, "Don't move! I need to take your pic!") Incidentally, Giancarlo's sneakers were unlaced -- another detail I found interesting. Giancarlo, I'm going to include a guy like you in one of my books one day!

Today was my last of three visits to East HIll Elementary School in Rivière-des-Prairies. I worked with a Grade Five and a Grade Six class. As usual, I'm going to share a few highlights of the visit.

The Grade Five teacher, Miss Teresa, was away, so I worked with MIss Sandy, who was substituting. Miss Sandy and I had trouble getting the smart board to work, but luckily, a student named Laura came to the rescue. "I unplugged and replugged the wires," Laura said. Yay for GIRLPOWER! But then I must admit I laughed when a student named Alessandro, who was sitting in the front row, called out, "It was all MY idea!"

We talked about the importance of asking WHAT IF? A student named Briana explained that, "If I have a boring dream, I switch it up." Excellent, Briana! So you've already been using the WHAT IF? method!

A student named Christopher told me, "I write in my Garfield diary. Sometimes, I write about what's tough in my life, or what I can accomplish." Christopher's comment made me happy for many reasons. First of all, I'm delighted that he keeps a diary. I'm also impressed that he writes about tough subjects (not everyone is courageous enough to do that, Christopher), but also that he looks to the future and imagines the things he "can accomplish."

After recess, I worked with Madame Judith's Grade Sixes. When I first walked in, the students were working with Miss Antonella, whom I learned teaches Italian at East Hill. That was when I discovered that students at East HIll take compulsory Italian, which I think is very cool -- and good for developing brains!

A student named Joe kindly let me share his desk. Joe told me that he gets in trouble a lot. I asked him what kind of trouble he causes (see -- I was doing RESEARCH) and Joe told me he sometimes says bad words. "Also, I think I have a detention after school today for not doing my homework," Joe added. Later, when we were doing an exercise about writing a story you really wish you could read, Joe wrote about "a boy with OCD and ADHD, but he's a very good detective." Joe, I want to tell you I'm not allowed to have favourites, but you kind of stole my heart today! I definitely think you should write that story. In fact, if you get it published, I want to come to the book launch!

Another student named Alessandro started his story with the sentence, "It all began in an old pizzeria." I liked that opening a lot too -- and not only because I love pizza!

Okay, I'm about to head to my own classes at Marianopolis College. Thanks to the teachers, and the students at East Hill, thanks to librarian MIss Ida for organizing my visits. I'm going to miss my friends at East HIll. In the mean time, READ and WRITE and ask WHAT IF?!!!


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Fun Start to the Week at Michelangelo Elementary School

I'm getting good at finding my way to Rivière-des-Prairies! I was back this morning at Michelangelo International Elementary School to work with Miss Noemia's Grade Six students. I think you will be able to tell from today's pic that these students have a lot of personality!

When I told the students that stories need TROUBLE -- I explained that TROUBLE is like gas (or electricity!) for a car... it makes a story MOVE FORWARD -- I mentioned feelings like sadness, frustration, loneliness and betrayal. My comment led a student named Stefano to ask a great question: "Do you mean in school? Out of school? And what about sports?" My answer was ALL OF THE ABOVE. When you're writing a book, Stefano, you can set it anywhere you like -- in school, out of school, or on a soccer field. Stefano went on to explain that he has felt sad when he played both hockey and soccer: "I was always getting told, 'You're not good!'" It also turns out that Stefano's dad was a coach. So I told Stefano it sounds to me like he has a GREAT STORY to work with -- especially because publishers are really interested in kids' books about sports. Get to work, Stefano! In my opinion, too many sports stories are about star athletes. I'd certainly like to read a book about a kid who is struggling on the soccer pitch or at the arena.

Later, we got to talking about dreams, which are an important source of inspiration for writers. Gianfranco told us, "For two weeks, I had bad dreams." I think that also makes interesting book material, Gianfranco. Now write down what happened in those dreams before you forget the DETAILS!

LIke me, a student named Cassandra writes in her journal every single day. When I asked the students to do an exercise involving a memory from when they were five years old, Cassandra wrote this beautiful piece, which she allowed me to share on today's blog:

"grandma hospital cold hand sad pain nurse old bed sick card get well soon balloons"

I LOVE IT. And Cassandra's words, and the way she has combined them, tell me that she is a POET. Keep writing, Cassandra!

I finished my session by discussing my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's childhood experience during the Holocaust. I was very moved when a student named Jonathan stopped me on my way out today and said, "Maybe your mom is looking down and saying, 'Good job!'"

So, here's what I have to say to the students I worked with today at Michelangelo: GOOD JOB!! Thanks to Miss Noemia, and student teacher Angela, and to librarian Miss Ida too!


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Hello from Michelangelo International Elementary School!

Today's blog entry comes to you from Michelangelo International Elementary School in Rivière-des-Prairies! So I bet you're wondering about today's pic! What exactly am I doing with those three kids? Well... I was explaining that writers need to do RESEARCH, so I told them how, for my YA novel, Straight Punch, I took boxing lessons for three years! I was showing them my moves when a few of the kids started to demonstrate in their seats. Note, for instance, Amanda, who's to the right of the me in the photo -- she takes kickboxing. Anyway, we decided to pose together for this pic.

I worked first with Ms. Elisa's Grade Six class, then with Miss Ida's Grade Fives. Both groups were great audiences. The librarian at MIES is also the librarian at East Hill, where I was on Monday and Wednesday this week, and she's another Miss Ida. So in honour of Miss Ida the librarian, I started the day by asking the Grade Sixes to each make a list of words that start with the letter I. Diego's list included the word icon, which I thought was a very cool word for someone his age. Giada's favourite word on her list was ice cream, which she added, is also her favourite dessert. I told the students they could even include words from other languages, so Diego's list included the word Inglaterra, which is Spanish for England. The point of the exercise was to remind us that words can be fun.

A funny moment happened when I was discussing something serious: the concept of what is known as "enthusiastic consent." I explained that if a young person, or a person of any age for that matter, wishes to have physical contact with another person, they must ask for "enthusiastic consent." (This came up because I was telling the students about a book I've been reading where a male character does not ask for consent before he kisses a girl he hardly knows -- and that part of the book upset me.) Anyway, Diego asked, "Does that apply if you want to beat someone up?" Which led me to tell the students that I think WHAT IF? is one of the most important questions to ask if you are a writer. WHAT IF a Grade Six student, perhaps named Diego, asked another kid if he was enthusiastic about getting beaten up? Might that lead to an honest conversation about whatever is bugging Diego and the other kid? Hey, you know what? That could be a book!

When I was working with Miss Ida's (the other Miss Ida!!) Grade Fives, I was talking about reading again (writers need to read A LOT). I said, "When I read..." and then a boy named Cristian finished my sentence for me. "You get ideas! Cristian added. Exactly, Cristian. (And see, I spelled your name right, Cristian-without-an-h!)

Later this term, the class will be reading Karen Levine's book Hannah's Suitcase, so it was a good opportunity for me to talk about my own connection to the Holocaust and how my YA novel, What World Is Left, is based on my mum's childhood experiences in Theresienstadt, the same Nazi concentration camp where Levine sets her story.

Many students had family stories that were related to the Second World War. Paolo's grandfather escaped the Nazis in Italy because he had blond hair and blue eyes. Miss Ida (the teacher, not the librarian) told us how, after her father's death a few years ago, she found that he had written his memoirs, in which he told the story of how, as a young boy living in Italy during the Second World War, he fled to the mountains to escape the Nazis, and how they fired at him.

Some days -- and today was one of those days -- it feels to me like STORIES ARE EVERYWHERE. That thought makes me happy happy happy. Now it's our job to "catch" those stories, then write them down, and then share them with our readers.

Thanks to Miss Elisa and the two Miss Idas; thanks to the kids at Michelangelo for being wonderful. I'll be back again at Michelangelo on Monday morning. Until then, let's all go catch some stories!

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Second Morning at East Hill Elementary

Hello hello, blog readers! I've been working with writers all day -- I started the day at East Hill School in Rivière-des-Prairies, then went right to Marianopolis College to work with my "regular" classes.

It's been extra-fun working with Grades Five and Six students this week since, in my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis, we're working on middle-grade novels, so the East Hill students are exactly our target population.

Today, at East HIll, I worked with Miss Veronica and Miss Diane's classes. Miss Veronica took today's pic which makes me happy because there is nothing a writer likes to see more than young people WRITING! Thanks, Miss Veronica, for taking the pic -- and also for being such an enthusiastic member of the audience today!

I thought I'd use today's blog entry to share a few highlights from my morning at East Hill. Here goes!

A Grade Six student (Miss Veronica's class was a Grade Six group; Miss Diane's were Grade Fives) named Emma told me she wants to be a chef. When I explained that writers need to be readers, Emma understood the similarity between writing and cooking -- you need to try out other people's recipes! Just like writers need to read other writers' stories!

Amanda, another Grade Six student, came up with a wonderful neologism (a neologism is an invented word) to describe her first day of school when she was five years old: "I was nercited." Nercited, Amanda explained to me, is a mixture of nervous and excited. I love that word, Amanda! In fact, I vote for it to be in the dictionary!

When I asked the students to come up with a book blurb for the book they most want to read, Alessia wrote this: "I'm at a wedding with my sisters and brothers. It's actually a wedding on a different planet." Very cool, Alessia! And a student named William came up with this blurb: "When a kid and his family are living in Italy, they're super poor. They move to New York, but while they're aboard the boat from Italy, a strange guy comes up and leaves the kid with no more family because the guy murders the rest of the family. Later, the kid grows up and goes for revenge." Wouldn't you want to read that book?

And a student named Nicolas made me laugh when I asked if there was an 'h' in his name. "There's no 'h,'" he told me, "otherwise, it would be nich-olas." (If you didn't laugh maybe it's because it's one of those you-had-to-be-there jokes!)

Miss Diane's Grade Fives were just as lively and interested as the Grade Sixes I worked with today. For her book blurb, a student named Sarah wrote about an imaginary character named Ella who "went though a tough time. Her grandfather was dying and she was extremely close to him. She felt like she was all alone." I asked Sarah whether she had ever experienced the death of someone she loved, and she told me that she had. Though I'm sorry Sarah has had to go through that experience, I also told her that that difficult time has given her important material to work with -- and to turn into an important story that other kids will need to read.

And just to end this blog entry on a lighter note, a student named Jack asked me a question I've never been asked before! He wanted to know, "When you publish a book, do you get a free copy or do you have to buy it?" The answer is I get TEN free copies! (I usually give them to my friends and family.)

If it sounds like I had fun at East Hill, it's because I did. Many thanks to the teachers, to librarian Miss Ida for the invitation, and to the kids for being smart and fun. I'll be back at Easthill on March 27. Hoping to see some young writers at recess to hear -- and perhaps even read -- what they've been writing this week!

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Fun Start to the Week at East Hill Elementary School

I kicked off the week with a fun visit this morning to East Hill Elementary School in Rivières-des-Prairies. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be doing two more visits to East Hill, as well as three visits to another school in the area. Rivières-des-Prairies is about a fifty-minute drive from where I live in Montreal and it's a part of the Montreal Island I had never visited. The houses in the area look nice -- and I can tell you for sure that the kids are super!

In today's pic, that's Diamante and Ariane at the front, demonstrating perfect student body language. Note the perfectly poised pencils -- and of course, the smiling faces! I like to use body language as an example when I talk about how authors search for interesting details. Also, if you know me, you'll know I have an OBSESSION with body language!

I worked first with Madame Johanne's Grade Six class, and then with Miss Luciana's Grade Fives. Because I had nearly two hours with each group, there was plenty of time for writing exercises. I asked the Grade Sixes to write a short blurb describing the book they would most want to read. Diamante wrote about "a girl named Max Einstein, who's obsessed with Albert Einstein." It's a good thing that Diamante is an Einstein fan herself -- that will give her a head-start when she starts writing her book. I LOVE LOVE the idea, Diamante! (Also, I might steal your name for an upcoming book. I'd never heard it before -- and I like it a lot!) A student named Dante (another great name) wrote about "Martin [who] just wanted to cook." I learned later that Dante is hooked on cooking shows. Dante, that's another super book idea. GET TO WORK, GUYS!

When I asked the students what the "first cousin" of writing is, a student named Noah got the correct answer: Reading. As Noah explained to the class, "If you wanna write, you need to read." Exactly, Noah! He also told me, "I like to read -- sometimes."

We also discussed how trouble helps "fuel" a story -- in other words, without trouble, a story cannot move forward. So I told the class, "If you've ever felt lonely, or overwhelmed, or sad or betrayed... congratulations!" Then I asked them, "Why I did just say 'Congratulations!'?" A student named Luca knew the answer. He said, "it's because now you've got a story." Right on, Luca!

I worked with the Grade Fives after recess. In the imagine-the-book-you-want-to-read exercise, Liana came up with an intriguing premise: "a world where the girls did the work and the guys did the cleaning." I bet a lot of people would read that book, Liana! Sara had another great book idea: "the story of a princess who's a thief." I asked Sara what kind of stuff her imaginary princess steals, but Sara didn't know the answer yet. See how writing takes thinking!

Both groups had a lot of questions for me. Daniel wanted to know, "Do you have to spend your whole day writing the book?" I told him the answer is yes -- and no. The thing is, I explained, I "write" my books even when I am doing something else, such as driving to school, or taking a walk, or even making tea. On the other hand, if I can get in two or three hours of actual writing-writing at my desk, that's what I consider an excellent writing day.

Jessica told me she loves to write: "I write books with my friends, but I always get distracted." I suggested that distraction may not be such a bad thing -- as long as she remembers to jot down her ideas when they come to her. I told the students that I have an "ideas" file on my computer, and every now and then, I go back to it and see which idea is clamouring the loudest, asking to be turned into a story.

I'll be back at East Hill on Wednesday this week. Thanks to the teachers for sharing your students, thanks to librarian Miss Ida for the invite (and the cough drops, and the tea, and the blueberries -- shhhh! don't tell, there's a strict no-eating and no-drinking rule in the library), and thanks especially to the kids for getting my week off to such a lively, happy start!


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Simply Hilarious Goes to the Atwater Library

Actor Fanny La Croix (she's the kid behind me in today's pic!) were at Atwater Library this morning working with a group of terrific seniors on a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Simply Hilarious. I'm in charge of helping participants craft funny stories; Fanny's helping our storytellers work on their delivery. This was our second of two sessions at the library -- we've already worked with other seniors at a residence called Place Kensington, as well as at Cote St. Luc's Eleanor London Libary.

Our top storytellers will be participating in an exciting event at this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. And here's a tip: Simply Hilarious is going to be an event you don't want to miss!

Today, Fanny and I heard and worked on stories about two sisters who ran nude across their front lawn on Montreal's West Island; a blind date that nearly went wrong; how a bottle of Scotch helped a woman deal with a terrible injury; and also how a woman in her 80s fell for a guy who got in touch with her after nearly sixty years. I must say we all laughed a lot -- and got a little choked up too.

One participant, Carolynn, told us that, "I grew up in a sad house" and that it was difficult for her to remember happy moments from her childhood. I told Carolynn, who later told me that she is writing her memoirs, that I think Growing Up In a Sad House would make a great book title. What do you think?

Robert, who's not in today's pic since he's the one who took it, told me he learned from our workshops that, "We all have stories to tell."

Fanny told a participant named Katherine that she had a "great body" and that she reminded Fanny of Katharine Hepburn. By "great body," Fanny explained, she didn't only mean that Katherine was in excellent shape, but that she incorporated physicality in her storytelling. On the way out today, Katherine told me that, "I'm channeling my inner Katharine Hepburn!"

Fanny will be back at the library to help participants do a "dress rehearsal" for the Blue Met show. Check this space for more details about the event. Thanks to Blue Met for making this program possible, and thanks to all the workshop participants for sharing your stories. On my walk home today, I thought how my head was full of stories. And so was my heart! See you at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival!



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Worth the Drive to Longueuil

Here's an admission: I'm a bit of a nervous driver on the best of days. Today I had to drive over the Champlain Bridge and my friends who've been driving to Montreal's South Shore this week had warned me that the morning glare was making the drive difficult. But guess what? The glare wasn't a problem. And even if it had been, it would have been worth it since the students at Ecole Monseigneur-A.-M.-Parent were so much fun to work with!

I started the day with Miss Dias's Grade 10 students, and after lunch, I worked with Miss Dias's other Grade 10 class, as well as with Miss Molle's Grade 11 students. Ecole Monseigneur-A.-M.-Parent is a French school, and I was impressed by how fluent the students were in English. Afterall, if they could keep up with speedy me, their English must be good!

When I told the first group that I've been writing three pages a day in a journal for nearly 30 years (I only skipped one day because I had the flu), a student named Jonathan called out, "That's 36,000 and something pages!" I laughed because in all those nearly 30 years, I have never stopped to make the calculation. So Jonathan's comment showed me something about him: that he's into numbers! (Hey, Jonathan, I just did the math on my computer and it's actually 32,850, but hey, you were close enough!) If I were writing about a character like Jonathan, I'd definitely make him a numbers-kind-of-guy. It's the kind of detail that would help bring a character to life -- and make the character, like the real-life Jonathan, unforgettable!

I told both groups of students that I really believe they need to write A LOT if they want their writing to improve. I also told them something my grandfather, who was an artist, once told me: "To succeed you need this much talent [he spread his arms about four inches apart] and this much hard work [here, he spread this arms as far apart as they would go]."

After I finished my first talk, a student named Tammy-Lee stayed behind to chat with me. I had already observed her excellent braids -- and I asked her how she gets them to look so cool. Tammy-Lee told me, "I use elastics, and then I pull on the hair." I learned that it takes Tammy-Lee about 30 minutes to make those braids. Today, she got up at 5:50 so she'd have time for braiding. Why am I telling you all this? Because details are interesting, and because maybe I'll use a student like Tammy-Lee in one of my stories, and make her an excellent hair braider. Tammy-Lee said she learned from my talk that, "I need to persist in what I do." Yay, Tammy-Lee!

In the second group, a student named Callixte stole my heart. That's because he didn't seem all that interested when I first got started, but when I explained that the ability to write well can be a passport to a better life, I noticed Callixte liven up. Later, Callixte told me he hopes to become an engineer. Engineers definitely need to be good writers -- and thinkers. (If you ask me, wrkiting is a kind of thinking!)

When I first started doing author visits 15 years ago, I never talked about money or the business side of writing. But that has changed. I told the students today that when I was growing up, adults used to tell me, "It's nice that you have writing for a hobby." Now I think to myself: writing is not my hobby, it's one of the things I do to earn my living -- and I'm fiercely proud of every penny I have made as a result of working hard on my writing. As I reminded the students today, if they have a little bit of talent, and are willing to put in the hard work -- writing can also become a way for them to earn their livings.

A student named Jahzeev seemed super interested in the idea of doing creative work to support himself. Jahzeev told me afterwards that his dream is to design cars and eventually own a car company. Go for it, Jahzeev!

When I asked the students what they think I write about in my journal every morning, Anne-Sophie had an answer I loved: "Everything and nothing!" Exactly, Anne-Sophie! Anne-Sophie also wanted to know, "Do you ever write down your dreams?" Yes yes yes! Hey, Anne-Sophie, you're nearly ready to take over and do the writing workshop for me.

Thanks to librarian Michèle Benard for finding a way to bring me to Ecole Monseigneur-A.-M.-Parent today, and to Miss Dias for the invitation. Thanks again to Miss Dias and to Miss Molle for sharing your lovely, lively students with me. And thanks to Miss Molle for being the one to laugh hardest at my stories! And thanks especially to the students for being who you are. Now... get to work on your stories!

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Meet Nahid Kazemi

See how interested and focused the students in my Writing for Children class at Marianopolis College look? That's because yesterday, they had a chance to meet author and illustrator Nahid Kazemi. We had read her lovely picture book, I'm Glad That You're Happy (Groundwood), in class last week.

Nahid, who was born in Iran, moved to Montreal four years ago. Though she had a successful career as an illustrator in Iran, she had to start all over again when she came here. "I started here from zero," she told the class. I think her message -- that it is possible to start from zero and work hard to achieve your dreams -- touched many students in the class. Two young women, both Persian, followed us out of the classroom so they could have a little more time with Nahid.

I thought I'd use today's blog to share some of the lessons Nahid taught us yesterday. "The first draft should be bad. The worst!" (Nahid actually said that in my office before class, when we were chatting with one of my former students, Olivia, a talented young writer who wanted to know how to get started on a book.) Nahid's advice was just to start, not to worry too much, and to accept that the first draft would be "bad, The worst!"

Here's more brilliant advice from Nahid: "A necessity for all of us is observation." (Hey guys, if you're in my class, does that sound familiar?!). "Another thing," Nahid added, "is discipline. We need it more than anything!" YES YES YES! Nahid explained that she is a morning person; she devotes every single weekday morning to her job.

Nahid also shared a short video presentation of her latest book, Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon (Enchanted Lion), written by JonArno Lawson. This picture book has very few words, but through the JonArno's poetic language and Nahid's images, it tells a powerful story about change and identity. Check it out!!

Nahid also told us, "We shouldn't be afraid of bad work. I try to watch the idea from different angles and ask, 'What if?'" (That "What if?" queston should also sound familiar to my students!)

So thanks to Nahid for the wonderful visit, for giving all of us lots to think about. And thanks to my students for being smart and sensitive and the perfect audience.

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The Universe is Made of Stories

First of all, sorry for the blurry pic.

Second of all, you'll want to know who those blurry faces belong to! Those are some of the participants from this afternoon's storytelling workshop at the Eleanor London Library in Cote St. Luc. I was there for an exciting Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Simply Hilarious. Actor Fanny La Croix and I are working with three groups of seniors, helping them write and perform stories for an upcoming festival event.

The title of today's blog entry is "The Universe is Made of Stories." I heard someone say that on the radio last week (only I have to admit I didn't catch who it was who said it)... but the person said most people think the universe is made of atoms, but it's really made of stories. I like stories more than atoms myself!!

Today's participants came up with a lot of funny stories. Sylvia told one about crawling into bed with her six-year-old grandson. Estelle's was about being suspected of smoking marijuana. Marlin's was about her father, whom she described as "the most eccentric person in the world." Laura's was about an awkward moment on stage in the Catskill Mountains. Leah's was about falling on the ice (a lof us in Montreal have been doing that lately). And Dinah's story helped us understand why her childhood nickname was Dynamite!

I don't want to give too much more away about the stories, since I'm hoping you'll be in the audience this May, when the stories will be told live!

Fanny wasn't with us today, but she'll run most of next week's workshop at the library, teaching participants performance strategies. I'll be in the room, working quietly (I know what you're thinking! Monique -- quiet? Yes, it's possible!).

Before I left today, I took a few moments to ask the participants what they got from the workshop. Estelle, who is part of the Montreal Storytellers' Guild, said she'd like to see an ongoing storytelling circle at the library. Marlin said, "You know what I liked? I liked everybody's stories!" Me too, Marlin!

My friend Myra, who is also a writer (in addition to being a lawyer) was there with her mom Dinah (AKA Dynamite). I'll finish today's blog entry with Myra's observation: "Everybody has a story. Sometimes, you have to excavate to find a story."

So here's to excavating for stories! Thanks to the library's Danielle Bélanger for helping to organize today's workshop. Thanks to Blue Met for making the program possible. And thanks especially to the storytellers. See you same time next Sunday!


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Working With More Bright Grade Sevens at St. Thomas High

That's me in today's pic with Miss Canci's second period Grade Seven class at St. Thomas HIgh School. I've got my arm around Justin, who turned out to be a prize pupil -- even though his initial body language (remember my obsession with body language?) suggested he might have preferred to be hanging out with his friend Tommy rather than meeting a writer for kids!!

During the short writing exercise I did with this class, the students wrote about a memory from when they were five years old. Justin turned out to be an excellent writer! He wrote about his fifth birthday. He was lying in his bed when his mom came in, "holding my favourite cake even though it's breakfast time." Great use of detail, Justin! You managed to capture the birthday mood, and also you show the reader than you have a fun mom.

After that session ended, a student named Kyle wanted to talk to me about having too many ideas. I told him I don't think too many ideas is a problem -- too few is a problem I wouldn't like to have! Kyle told me, "Sometimes ideas just fly through my head and I'm not fast enough to grab them." I just LOVED how that sounded, and I suggested to Kyle that he start writing a poem ASAP about flying ideas. You have a lovely, poetic way of expressing yourself, Kyle. Use it!!

I also worked with Miss Canci's third period Grade Sevens, and I finished the morning with Mr. Cloney's Grade Seven class. When I showed the students the journal I write in every day, a lively, enthusiastic student named Sofia told me she uses a diary for problem-solving. "I used to write in it every time I got into a fight with a friend," Sofia said. Great idea to use your journal to work through personal troubles,, Sofia... but here's another suggestion for you: make sure you also use your diary when you feel happy. That way, when you look back at it one day (everyone who keeps a diary eventually looks back at it), you won't think all you ever did was get into fights with friends!!!

I'll end today's blog entry with something funny. (I love funny stuff.) I was telling the students about how I did the research for my book Straight Punch by signing up for boxing lessons. So I asked them, "What do you think I brought with me every day to the gym?" (The correct answer was pen and paper by the way.) A student named Leo called out, "A protein shake!"

Thanks for the laugh, Leo. Use your sense of humour in your stories. Thanks to Miss Canci and Mr. Cloney for sharing your kids with me. Thanks to Mrs. Pye for the invite. And thanks to the kids for being a wonderful, fun and focused audience. Now get to work on your stories!!

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"I'm Going to Write More Stories" -- Sheila, who's 92

Actor Fanny La Croix (that's Fanny wearing the peach-coloured scarf in today's pic) and I spent the morning at Place Kensington, a Montreal seniors' residence. We were working with a group of lively, totally with-it seniors who will be taking part in this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. I'm not supposed to tell you too much about the Blue Met event -- but I can tell you it involves seniors and storytelling and it's going to be hilarious. I'm helping seniors find their stories and put them into words; Fanny is in charge of making their on-stage performances stellar.

Luckily for us, the seniors we've met so far are natural storytellers. (We'll be heading next to the Cote St. Luc Library, and lin March to the Atwater Library to continue our work.)

The gentleman in today's pic is named Sam. He's working on a wonderful story about his porcelain collection. The woman wearing the grey top is Sarah, and she's got an unforgettable story about a famous historic funeral which she attended as a child. When we were wrapping up today, Sarah told us, "As I've aged, I feel I have to define myself. Before you came, I was writing down different episodes, hoping to tell my children and grandchildren, and you have reinforced this process."

The woman wearing glasses is Eve -- Eve has some homework to do on her story! And the woman in blue closest to me is Sheila, who is 92 years old and in remarkably fine shape. I like Sheila's story so much I've been telling it to all my friends! I don't want to give away too much -- except to say it involves a cheeky budgie. Sheila's family lives in Toronto. I told Sheila she had better make sure they are here for the Blue Metropolis Festival in May. And you know what Sheila answered? "I'd better be here!"

Fanny did vocal exercises with the seniors (there were several more who attended, but who were not around when we found someone to snap today's pic), as well as an exercise called "dropping in" which encouraged participants to return to a memory and really feel it.

Sheila not only cracked me up with her story and her witty comment, she also made my day when she talked about the impact our work has had on her: "You triggered something in me. I'm going to write more stories."

So keep your eyes and ears open for more details about the upcoming Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. Our storytelling evening is going to be one event you won't want to miss. And something tells me you'll need to get your ticket early. This one's gonna be sold out!


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Second Day of Writing Workshops at St. Thomas High School

I'm just home from my second of three days of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School -- and I have a lot of fun stuff to tell you!

See the kids with me in today's pic? They're students from Mr. Rowland's Grade Seven English class. (I worked with three groups of students today -- Mr. Rowland's, Mr. Katz's and Mr. Thomas's.) The boy in the middle of the pic, wearing a grey shirt, is Harry. What I liked about Harry is that he's an original thinker. Here's the proof: I was telling the students how I sometimes steal pens. I don't mean from stores... but I have a bad habit of just kind of collecting them during the day. I do it because I'm always running out of ink -- which is a problem if you're a writer who loves jotting stuff down! Anyway, Harry raised his hand and asked, "Don't you like when your pen runs out? Doesn't it make you feel happy that you used a pen?"

Harry, I want to say THANKS. I will never again get grumpy when one of my pens runs out of ink. Instead, I'm going to think of what you told me -- and feel happy about it.

When I told the class that, in nearly 30 years, I only ONCE skipped writing in my journal, a student named Téa asked, "Why did you skip that day?" Oh, that made me happy! That's because it shows that Téa is SNOOPY or CURIOUS, which is an important trait in a writer. (The answer to the question is: I had the flu, and felt too woozy to even sit up in bed and hold a pen!)

There was time for a writing exercise with Mr. Katz's students -- so I had them write about a moment in their lives when they felt they changed. Madurta wrote something beautiful, which she gave me permission to share in today's blog. Thanks,Madurta! It's a powerful beginning to your story, and it shows us you are a courageous young woman. Here goes:

"The day I changed elementary schools from Greensdale which is now Kingsdale to Terry Fox because I got bullied. I'll tell you what happened. I was six years old and I was always alone. Some kids came and made fun of me and punched me. This happened for three years."

Madurta, I want to say that though you were working with difficult material today, you told your story in a compelling, moving way. I love the line "I'll tell you what happened." That line creates a kind of closeness with your reader. The details of the bullying you experienced are important to your story. It won't be easy for you to keep writing this piece, but I think you should. And I think you need to also write about your own resilience, how you overcame the experience and how it may continue to affect you to this day. You know what, Mardurta? Our world needs more stories about bullying -- and resilience!

I ended my day with Mr. Thomas's class. Because I was preparing for a quick getaway (I wanted to beat the school buses parked outside), I didn't write down students' names. But these kids were great. Often, students in the last class of the day are unfocused -- or rather they are focused on LEAVING, not learning... but not Mr. Thomas's class They were keen to learn about body language, and to hear the story of my monkey man charm.

I'll be back at St. Thomas next Wednesday. I'll bring my lunch and have it in one of the library's study rooms during junior lunch. Hey, if any of you want to come and chat about writing, or show me your work, that would be a great time to do it!

Many thanks to the teachers, to librarian Mrs. Pye for arranging the visit, to librarian Mrs. Thom for being there today, and to the kids for being wonderful. See you guys next week!

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Sweet Start to the Week at Evergreen Elementary

You don't have to be old to be smart! That's what I was thinking this morning during my visit to Evergreen Elementary School in St-Lazare.

If you know me, you know I'm obsessed with body language. (Teachers need to understand body language to manage our classes; writers can use body language to let readers learn more about our characters.) When I was working with the Grade Three's, I noticed a student named Tevin who was in perfect what I call "thinking position." (That's Tevin with me in the first pic. Notice how he is resting his chin in his hand. Admittedly, Tevin's glasses also make him look extra-smart!) You know what Tevin told me? "I'm always thinking!" Way to go, Tevin! Keep all that thinking up ...and here's a thought: maybe you should put some of your constant thinking into writing a book!

When I was discussing the importance of re-writing, a student named Rowan commented, "You have to try it once, and then do it over and over again until you like it." Precisely, Rowan, and nicely put! When we talked about how writers have to be readers (writing and reading go together like siblings or cousins), Nathan and Anais both told me they read every single night. Anais added, "I have a clamp light from Ikea." I thought that the clamp light from Ikea was a lovely detail -- and a good example of how the right details can help bring a story to life. Can't you just imagine a girl named Anais reading late at night, underneath the yellow light from her clamp light?!

I showed the students the ARC (which stands for Advance Reading Copy) of my spring non-fiction book, I Am A Feminist: Claiming the F-Word in Turbulent Times. Some of the kids knew what feminism was, but others were less sure. Which led a student named Lucien to ask one of my favourite questions of the day: "Is it true a man can rob a bank better than a woman?"

Of course, you'll want to know my answer! I told Lucien that I thought bank-robbing was a bad plan for anyone, no matter our gender. But, that being said, I told him that if a woman really had to rob a bank, well, I'm sure she'd be just as good at it as a man!!!

After recess, I worked with the Grade Four classes. I'd met most of these students when I visited Evergreen last year, so I did a quick review of my writing tips, and then moved on to new subjects. Because these students are just the right age for my Princess Angelica chapter book series, we talked a lot about how I got the idea for the first story, and about the upcoming books in the series. I explained that I found my inspiration for Princess Angelica, Part-Time Lion Trainer, which is coming out this spring, at the Ecomuseum, a place that many of these students have visited, because it's near their school. 

I also told the story of the monkey man charm I wear every single day. That charm has also inspired a book -- my first picture book! A student named Connor raised his hand to ask me an important question: "Are you going to keep the monkey man in your casket?" It took me a moment to realize that Connor wanted to know what my plans were for the monkey man charm after my death. Good question, Connor! I told him I'd rather give the charm to my daughter or to a museum. No sense in burying it!

A student named Hzaz asked me a question that made me super happy. He asked, "Is it normal when you go to bed, to have all these thoughts for a book?" I told Hzaz that I don't know if it's normal, but it's GREAT... and that HE IS DEFINITELY A WRITER. What you need to do, Hzaz, is write all those ideas down so you can use them in your books!

Later, when we were talking about grief, a student named Stuart told us about his guinea pig, Snowy. Snowy died on Mother's Day. Stuart asked, "Why did he have to die on a holiday?" It's a sad story, Stuart, but you should write about it. Try to capture not only how much you miss Snowy -- but also how much you loved him, and what made him a special guinea pig.

So I think you can figure out why my morning was sweet. Thanks to the teachers for sharing your kids with me, thanks to librarian Tina Hausen for arranging today's visit, and thanks to the kids... for stealing my heart.

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Grade Seven Yesterday -- Grade Three Today!

Today, photographer Pierre Charbonneau and I got to go back to Grade Three -- and it was FUN!

We were at Kingsdale Academy in Kirkland, working with Miss Arcamone's classes. It was our second visit. Pierre and I were at Kingsdale for the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation's Quebec Roots project. We are part of a team of writers and photographers working with students across the province, helping them to produce a chapter for this year's edition of Quebec Roots.

It's up to the students to choose a subject for their chapter. In the fall, these kids decided they wanted to write and take photos of the geese who visit their playground. The students have been writing stories and taking photos in preparation for today's visit.

Pierre began by explaining that we need MORE photos -- and that he'd like to see some photos of KIDS, and not just GEESE!!

I showed the students how I go about editing writing. We put their words on the screen, and I got right to work, tightening up the language, and making some sentences shorter and more clear.

Because we needed some more written material, I threw out a few topics for the students to work on in small groups. One topic was A GOOSE REPORT CARD. Though I give myself credit (good work, Mo!) for coming up with a fun topic, the real credit goes to the kids who did a wonderful job writing goose report cards. I have to admit I cracked up while I was putting it all down on the computer, and editing their material. I shouldn't be giving away too much -- but how about I just give you one of my favourite lines from the goose report card? (The line appears as a comment after the goose student's French grade. Oh, I forgot to tell you that the student named their goose student Stinky Honkalot!)


Here goes! (If you want to read more, you'll need to get yourself a copy of Quebec Roots when it comes out in the spring)...

"When it's time to hand in his devoirs, Stinky Honkalot flaps his wings and blows all the papers off his teacher's desk."

Did you chuckle too?

Before Pierre and I left today, I asked the kids to tell me what they learned about writing. Tristan said, "We need to use our imagination." Ava said, "I learned the word skein means a group of geese flying in the air." And Gacia, who was my personal computer assistant today (thanks so much, Gacia!), said, "I learned that you need to change some words to make your writing better."

Thanks, Ms. Arcamone, for being YOU (hey, I forgot to tell you that Ms. Arcamone is the beautiful dark-haired woman in today's pic); thanks to Pierre for being my partner at Kingsdale; and special big thanks to the kids for being fun, and hardworking and making me laugh! Maybe we'll see you guys at the book launch!!








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Super Morning at St. Thomas High School!!

You may know that I teach CEGEP here in Montreal and that I do a lot of school visits -- mostly to high schools, where I work a lot with students in the higher grades. But my morning at St. Thomas High School reminded me that I have a special fondness for Grade Sevens. I can't quite tell you why. Maybe it's because Grade Seven was a pivotal year in my own life; it's when I decided I wanted to become a teacher and a writer. Twelve going on thirteen is also the age my mum was when she entered Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration camp where she spent nearly three years. So, this morning, when I looked out at the three Grade Seven classes I was working with, I thought a lot about my mum and her story (which inspired my historical novel What World Is Left).

It also helped that the teacher of the remarkable students I worked with is the remarkable Miss Scott. Miss Scott and I worked together on a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project when she was teaching at Riverdale High School. In fact, Miss Scott and her students at Riverdale helped me write my YA novel Hate Mail. (They came up with some of the best ideas in the book!)

So, how about I tell you some of the most interesting things that happened with Miss Scott's classes this morning?

I was talking about body language with the first group when I noticed a student named David twiddling his pen. When I pointed out the twiddling, I noticed that another student named Muhammad was smiling and leaning in towards David. Clearly, Muhammad was enjoying the fact that I was teasing David. And as it turned out, the two boys are friends. I also learned that David was twiddling because he was tired. So, being snoopy (an important trait in a writer!), I asked David what had kept him up so late last night. Guess what he told me? THAT HE WAS READING A BOOK -- THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS. Great news, David! Twiddle away!

In the same group, when I talked about What World Is Left, a student named Cynthia asked, "Did your mum feel better after telling you her story?" My mum didn't want to share her story; she'd kept her experience secret for more than 60 years. But as I told Cynthia, my mum definitely feel better after sharing the experience. For one thing, she'd been a bad sleeper most of her life, but after telling me about what had happened to her during the war, she began sleeping better. Finding out my mum's story also did a lot to improve our relationship. It's hard to feel upset with a person once you know what they have been through.

Today's pic was taken at the end of my workshop with Miss Scott's second group. You may notice that one student is holding a book -- The Diary of Anne Frank. The student is Danica, and she pulled that book out from her desk when I told her class that my mum knew Anne Frank. My arms got tingly (they tingle whenever something amazing or interesting happens) when Danica showed me the book.

During the second class, I also met a student named Pearla. It's a name I'd never heard before and I wrote it down for my list of possible names to use in upcomig books. Thanks, Pearla! (Actually thanks to your folks for coming up with the cool name!)

I had lunch in the library, where I met with a few students to chat one-on-one about writing. I was impressed by a student named Peder who is half-Norwegian and half-Inuit. What a cool mix! Peder told me he is working on a book inspired by George Orwell's 1984. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, Peder had what he described as, "a vivid nightmare of a 1984 world." I told Peder to write all the details down before he starts to forget them. Interestingly, the characters in Peder's dream were all gender neutral. Use that in your book too, Peder! Peder had been in the second class I taught, and when I asked him if he learned anything from my talk, he told me: "I learned I should read and write more. If I ever write anything, I want to revise it over and over. I want to learn people's stories. I want to know." Peder, you made my day when you told me, "I want to know."

You'd think I couldn't possibly have had three wonderful classes in a row... but I did. Miss Scott's last group was the liveliest of them all -- in fact, I had to ask them to STOP asking questions (so sorry, you guys, but we only had 45 minutes together... why don't you go ahead and ask me some questions here in the comments section?!!). My favourite moment during this class was when a student named Evan asked  me, "Do you find it easier to write when it's based on something you actually feel?" Okay, Evan, you may only be in Grade Seven, but that is a super sophisticated question. And you know what else? I think your question touches the very heart of writing fiction. Good fiction doesn't have to be based on true events -- but it definitely has to be based on TRUE FEELINGS.

I'll be back for two more writing workshops at St. Thomas. I'll do my best to stick around for lunch. That's because I'd like to see what writing might emerge from this morning's workshops.

Thanks to my friend, librarian Mrs. Pye for the invite; thanks to Miss Scott for sharing your students (and from bringing my lunch in the library); and thanks to the kids for being wonderful, inquisitive and bright Grade Sevens!



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Reporting in from Quebec City

Hello hello... or perhaps I should say bonjour bonjour! I'm at the train station in Quebec City, about to head home after a fun, busy day doing writing workshops with students at Ecole Sécondaire de la Seigneurie in Beauport. I worked with three groups of secondary III students. English is a second language for these students -- but they're very good at speaking and writing it.

All of the students are reading my historical novel, What World Is Left, so besides sharing my usual writing tips, I told the students the story behind the book... and why it was such an important project for me personally. I also told them my favourite story -- it's about the monkey man charm I wear on my necklace.

Here are just a few of the highlights of today's visit --

With the first group (their teacher is my friend Mr. Lord), I talked a little about bilingualism. I told the students a line I read recently which really touched me: "Every time you hear an accent, it's a sign of courage." NIce, don't you think? I know that I have often felt embarrassed about my English accent when I speak French, but I DON'T LET THAT STOP ME!!

Mr. Lord had asked me NOT to speak French with his classes, but once in a while, I snuck in a French word. When I was discussing the importance of revising our work, I used the word "brouillon" which means "rough draft" in French. I told the students that I much prefer the sound of the word "brouillon" to :"rough draft." Brouillon sounds rougher, don't you think?! (I know my first drafts are VERY rough.)

The second class was with a lovely substitute teacher named Laurie. With that group, I talked about how it has been possible for me to turn something I love (writing) into a career. Afterwards, a young man named Matthis told me, "It isn't always possible to follow your passion." Matthis went on to explain that he'd had to give up his dream of becoming a professional hockey player: "It's because I had three concussions and I work after school at Provigo." But I think I may have come up with a solution for Matthis. What about writing a book about a young hockey player who has had three concussions and works part-time at the local grocery store? You know, Matthis, there is a big market for sports stories for teens... and I think you could turn your story into a book. I bet a lot of young people would be interested in reading it. And of course, I want to read it too!

Here's a little shout-out to a student named Tommy-Lee Tremblay. I just want to tell you that you've got the kind of name that belongs on a book cover. (Or else maybe I should have a Tommy-Lee Tremblay as a character in one of my books!)

Students in the last group (also Mr. Lord's students) had heard that I had discussed body language earlier in the day -- so I showed them some of my tricks for analyzing body language. I explained that writers use body language in our stories. It's one more way to bring characters to life. I told these students that I always hate my frist drafts. I asked them if they ever love anything they write when they first write it. A student named Louis said: "Sometimes I write one sentence and I think it's fantastic."

I told Louis that I think that means he MAY NOT be a writer... but you know what, Louis? Here I am on the train (I forgot to mention that I boarded a while ago and am now writing from my seat)... and I'm thinking maybe I was wrong. Maybe you're just lucky -- and talented. Good for you that you think some of your sentences are fantastic, even before you rewrite them. Now the trick is to work on your OTHER sentences -- the ones that may not be quite so fantastic -- and  turn them into something beautiful too.

Thanks to the students for being smart, lively, open and great listeners. Thanks to Mr. Lord for the invite. Catch the stories, talk to old people and find out their secrets, then take the stories you catch -- and share them with the rest of us!










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Back from the Circus... School, I Mean!!

I'm just home from an incredibly fun and stimulating visit to Montreal's Ecole Nationale de Cirque where I did two writing workshops for young people who have come to Montreal to train to become circus performers. My workshops took place in the school's library -- a place that is close to my heart. That's because it was in this very same library that I started researching my YA novel Learning the Ropes. It was also there that I met librarian Anna-Karyna Barlati, who really introduced me to all things circus!

What made today's visit unusual and special for me is that the young people I worked with already know a lot about some of the things I love to discuss, such as the need for discipline and hard work if we want to get better at what we do. We also talked about courage. It takes courage for authors to tackle difficult subjects, but as a student named Lily explained, working on a circus act also requires courage. Lily explained that she needs courage when she does ropes or tissu: "When I'm about to do my big drop and I'm face down, I think, 'Am I going to hit my head on the mat?'"

These students also understood when I explained how much re-writing I do. That's because they go over their moves again and again... and then some... before they get them right. And when I said that I often feel frustrated when I write, a student named Lola said she felt the same way when she was learning to do a hands-free cartwheel: "I did it once, but then I couldn't do it a second time." But Lola didn't give up -- another trait we writers share with circus performers!-- and now she can do the hands-free cartwheel anytime she wants to!

If you know me, you'll know I'm obsessed with body language. Well, there was a lot of nodding when I was sharing my writing tips today. Sometimes, I get the sense that one of the young people I am working with is meant to be a writer. I had that feeling about many of the students I met today. A student named Andrea, who does the Cyr wheel, confirmed my hunch about her when she told me, "I'm the kind of person who doesn't understand things until I write them down." Exactly, Andrea! That's what writing is all about!

In addition to teachers Diana Matean and Vaji Dorostkar, my librarian pal Anna-Karyna was also at today's workshops. I learned that Anna-Karyna teaches a course on Research Methods and the Artistic Process. So I'm going to end tonight's blog entry with something Anna-Karyna told my second group: "Hold those stories of who you are." How I love that line! That's what we all need to do -- hold the stories of who we are. Whether we use words or physical movement or music or paint to tell our stories, the main thing is holding onto them -- and when we're ready, sharing them with the world.

Thanks Diana and Anna-Karyna for making today's visit possible. Thanks especially to the students. My book Learning the Ropes is pretty good -- but think how amazing your books about circus life are going o be!!! Now get to work!!!

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Small Triumphs in Akulivik, Nunavik -- and a Lesson from an Artist

Hello again from Akulivk, Nunavik, where I am working with artist Thomas Kneubuhler at Tukisiniarvik School. We are here as part of the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation's Quebec Roots program, helping students use words and images to produce a chapter that will be published this spring in a real book!

I am calling today's blog entry "Small Triumphs in Akulivik and A Lesson from an Artist." I'll start with today's small triumph. English is a second or third language for most of the students at Tukisiniarvik School. Most have grown up speaking Inuktitut. And many of the students we've been working with this week are reluctant to put words on paper. (They are a lot happier when they are taking photographs with Thomas!) I think part of the issue is that their fear of making a mistake. I've been trying to tell them that making mistakes is an important part of the writing process. I make mistakes all the time. Which is why I spend most of my work days RE-WRITING!

So today's small triumph came when we dropped in to visit Abby's class, which is down the hall from Edna's class (we've been working with Edna's students for the Quebec Roots project). Because most of the kids at Tukisiniarvik were in the gym, preparing for the Christmas party, Thomas and I only had two students: Diane, who's 14, and her 12 year old brother Sakiriasi.

Thomas started the lesson by showing them some photos and talking about his work as a photographer. I took over for the second half. My small triumph was: I GOT THE KIDS TO DO SOME WRITING!! I asked them to remember being five years old. Diane wrote about playing with her best friend and her dog. Sakiriasi wrote about going hunting for caribou with his dad. Sakiriasi has been hunting since he was four! You'll find proof of today's small triumph in the first pic -- that's the two kids, with Abby and me -- all of us showing off our writing!

Perhaps you are wondering what the second photo is all about. That's a photo taken by one of Edna's students -- it's a shot of the arena here in Akulivik. The students have decided to focus their chapter on the arena, a popular destination in town. Thomas was showing Edna's students this pic yesterday... and now comes "A Lesson From an Artist"! Thomas observed the boarded up windows on the second floor of the arena. (You'll see them in the second photo.) And he asked the students, "What happened to those windows?" Then Thomas turned to me and said, "I bet there's a story there!"

It turns out that Thomas was right. It also turned out that one of the boys in the class admitted that he had broken one of the windows. And guess what? I got him to write a poem about it! We called the poem "Slingshot" since that's what he used to shatter the glass. I'm going to share a few lines from his poem here:

"On my third try, I shattered the window.

I felt good and bad.

Good because I had good aim.

Bad because I broke the window."

I don't know about you, but I love the simple straightforward language and the part about feeling good and bad. I often have mixed feelings about things. I also admire that the student was brave enough to write about something difficult. As I've been telling the kids in Akulivik, trouble in a story (or poem) is like gasoline in a Ski-Doo -- it gets things moving!

One of my YA novels, The Middle of Everywhere, is set in Nunavik. But another thing I've been telling the students here -- perhaps the most important thing I can share with them -- is that they're the real experts about life in the North. It's time for YOU to write YOUR stories about life in Akulivik. Use trouble to fuel your stories, and take a lesson from Diane and Sakiriasi and don't be afraid to make mistakes!

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Pulling Out Stitches When Sewing a Parka -- Akulivik, Nunavik

I'm reporting in today from Tukisiniarvik School in Akulivik, Nunavik. I'm here with artist Thomas Kneubuhler, working on this year's edition of Quebec Roots, a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project.

Teams of writers and photographers are travelling to six schools across the province of Quebec. We're helping students to use words and photos to capture the communities where they live.

We are working with Edna's senior students. Yesterday, we spent the morning discussing possible topics. Every chapter in the Quebec Roots book, has its own topic, and it's important for the Blue Met team that students come up with their own topics. (In other words, it's not up to us to tell the students what to write or take photographs about!) So far, it looks like Edna's students want to write about the arena, a popular hangout in town. What's interesting is that in Akulivik, the arena is more of a place for the local boys than for the girls. Not that the girls aren't athletic -- in fact, it turns out that many of the girls are into volleyball. And it also turns out that most of the girls love to sew.

The zamboni, the machine used to clean the ice at the arena, has been broken since October. But that hasn't stopped the boys from playing hockey. This morning, I got students to do a group poem called "Zanboni." I'm going to give you a sneak preview -- you'll have to wait until April, when the 2019 edition of Quebec Roots is published, to read the whole poem!

"Junior loves to clean the ice.

Not because it's good exercise,

Not because he likes to clean his house,

But because it means he gets to play hockey."

You know what I love about that stanza of our group poem? That I can hear the kids' voices! Can you hear them too?

Also, before I sign off for today, I want to tell you one more thing that happened this morning. Because we had some spare time, Thomas and I did mini photography and writing workshops with Jill's secondary students. We only had three students in our class -- but it was kind of amazing! Usually, I start with the writing (that's because students tend to be less interested in learning about writing, so I'm like the soup and salad and Thomas is the DESSERT), but we thought we'd change things up, so Thomas did his mini photo workshop first. Dessert before soup and salad!

You should have seen the students' faces during Thomas's workshop -- especially when he showed them photos students took when Thomas and I were here for Quebec Roots in 2009. The students recognized some of their friends.

When it was my turn to work with the students, I talked about the importance of rewriting. And because I know the girls love to sew, I found a way to compare writing to sewing. "DId you ever," I asked them, "have to pull out a stitch and start over?"

A student named Jessica said that that had happened to her many times. "How did it make you feel to have to pull out a stitch?" I asked. Jessica said, "I felt mad." Exactly! Rewriting is frustrating work -- like pulling out stitches when you are sewing a parka. But in the end, it's worth it -- because you get a good story, or a beautiful warm parka!

But you know how I know my mini writing workshop really was a success?! Because at the end, I asked the girls, "Do you want me to give you homework?" (I was only joking.) Then a student named Annie, said "YES!"

Annie, thanks for making my day. Tukisiniarvik School, thanks for the warm welcome. To Edna's students, I hope you learn a lot this week about writing and photography. We look forward to reading and seeing your work. Thanks to the KSB's Amber Douthwright for organizing our visit, thanks to Blue Met's Fréderick Gaudin Laurin for overseeing our work. Here's to words and images!



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Visit to Joliette High School

I'm just home from a fun visit to Joliette High School where I worked with Miss Beddia's Sec II classes. One of the things that made today's visit extra-fun is that Miss Beddia was once my student at Marianopolis College. There is a special pleasure in having taught someone who has become such a talented teacher.

I worked with two groups and I had to be super speedy with the first group (that's because bad weather here in Montreal made the trip to Joliette longer than I expected). But I'll give those kids credits because they managed to keep up with me!

I demonstrated how writers tend to be snoopy by asking a student named Sam why his thumb was wrapped in a bandage. You'll never guess what I found out! That Sam makes his own sushi. He was preparing sushi early this morning for his lunch when he cut his thumb (which explains the bandage). Later, when I was telling the students they should interview their grandparents in order to uncover their secrets, Sam told us a great story about his grandmother: "She accidentally lit a Costco on fire. Maybe it wasn't a Costco, but she said it looked like one." If I were you Sam, I'd bring a pen and paper over to your grandma's and get some more details. I think there's a book in there!

During the brief exercise I did with the first group, I asked students to write about a moment in their lives when they needed courage. Julianne wrote about coming to Quebec from Guatemala and attending a French school when she didn't speak a word of French: "I felt dumb (very dumb)." I love how Julianne included the words "very dumb" in brackets... you can really feel how unhappy and inadequate Julianne must have felt.

A student named William asked me, ""Why do you write books that won't be popular in ten years? Gaming is taking over." I told William that I hope to write books that will remain popjular long after ten years have gone by. And I told him that I have friends who write the scripts for video games... and maybe he should conisder a career in that field.

With the second group, I tried a different writing exercise. I asked the students to remember a fight they had been involved in, or else witnessed. Matis wrote about an ice fight, and recalled his "thoughts of future revenge." Matis, you should keep writing that story and tell us more about those vengeful thoughts. I'd like to know more about what went through your head during the ice fight. Alyssia wrote about a schoolyard fight. She remembered, "I could hear everyone cheering and taking a video." Ohh, I love the sounds of cheering, and I think it'd make a great scene in a story to have students filming a fight on their cellphones. Keep writing that story, Alyssia!

As I was telling the students today, memory is an important part of the writer's toolbox. Most students use their memory to prepare for tests. But I think memory can also be put to excellent use as a source of inspiration for stories. Add the magic "What if?" question that I talked about this morning, and you could be on your way to writing your first book!

Because I arrived late, the plan is for me to meet up again next week with some of Miss Beddia's students for a virtual writing lesson. Lucky me to have met all of you today -- and to have had Miss Beddia for a student. And lucky all of you to have Miss Beddia for your teacher. Now get to work on your stories!!

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Good Grief

In the old comic strip, Charlie Brown's catch phrase was "Good grief."

Good Grief is also the name of a workshop for kids that takes place twice a year here in Montreal. The workshop was developed by my friend, grief counselor Dawn Cruchet, and it's now run by Dawn's protégé, grief counselor Natalie Segal together with Jillian Lucht.

I met Dawn and Natalie when I was doing the research for my novel, Planet Grief, which just happens to be set at a grief retreat!

So, today was pretty special, because I was invited to pop by the Good Grief Workshop to speak with the 30 or so kids (and their parents) who were attending. And thanks to a generous gift from Dawn's friend, Dr. Eva Kuchar, every one of the youngsters who was there today left with a copy of Planet Grief (which I happily signed for each of them!).

I told the young participants that I became interested in the subject of grief when my own mum was dying two years ago. At the time, I was 56 and I knew I was lucky to have had a mother for so long (I'm lucky, too, that I still have my dad). I wondered a lot about what it would feel like to be a young person whose mom or dad dies. Like I told the participants today, even though they are young, they already have a lot more life experience that many adults. And I suggested that maybe they should consider turning their difficult experiences into stories (or poems, or paintings, or music... in other words, into something beautiful that they can share with others).

I also talked a little about the writing process and all the work that goes into a published book. When I explained about the importance of re-writing, a lovely young man named Brenden remarked, "I have a rock polisher and you have to polish a rock over and over till it gets shiny." Exactly, Brenden -- it's the same for stories.

Later, when I was telling the kids that I often get good ideas in the shower, Brenden made another interesting comment: "Some inventors get ideas when they are on the toilet!" I will keep that in mind, Brenden!

Ariel, who is 18, and goes to John Abbott College, told me she stopped writing stories two years, following her mom's death. "I continud writing poetry. I use poetry to express my feelings. Now I want to go back to writing as a passion -- not just as an outlet." Wow, Ariel, those are powerful, sensitive words! I'm delighted that you feel ready to go back to writing stories. And I hope that for you, writing will be both a passion and an outlet. Even though writing is often hard work, I'm hooked! Something tells me you're heading in that direction too!

Even for a writer like me, it's hard to find words to describe the spirit at Selwyn House School today, where the Good Grief Workshop took place. It's as if I could feel the kindness and support in the air, but also the pain these youngsters have been through. As I told them, I am 100 per cent convinced that as they grow up, they will go on to help other young people who are facing loss and grief in their lives.

I'm not sure if I believe in heaven or angels... but I do believe that love lives on, and that our loved ones live on in us. At the end of the afternoon, we released balloons on which we had written messages.... 'm not sure the balloons will make it all the way to heaven. But I do know that when I looked at the youngsters' faces today, I could see both of their parents in them. And I can tell you that their parents must be very proud to have raised such kind and openhearted kids.

So, if you're in Montreal this evening and you see a balloon blowing overhead, think of love and courage. Grief is definitely good.

Thanks to Natalie for today's invite. Thanks to Dawn for all you do. Thanks to Natalie and Jillian's team for being fabulous. And thanks most of all to the kids, you are AMAZING. Thanks for your inspiration. xo from Monique



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"Tell Me A Story! Youth Literature and the Holocaust"

"Tell Me A Story: Youth Literature and the Holocaust" is the name of a traveling exhibit that will be making its way across  Canada. It's now in Montreal, on display at the Cote des Neiges Library.

I was there this morning for the inaugual event. Grade four students from the nearby Ecole Les Petits Chanteurs de Mont-Royal came to see the exhibit and do a little writing workshop with me.

The exbibit tells the story of five youngsters whose lives were affected by the Holocaust. All five youngsters' stories were used in works of literature including Karen Levine's Hannah's Suitcase and Anne Renaud's Fania's Heart. My novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's experience during the Holocaust, is also part of the exhbit.

It was very moving to see the gorgeous display, put togteher by the Montreal Holocaust Museum under the careful direction of Isabelle Goudou. Because I was busy with the writing workshops, I'll need to return ASAP to have a closer look at all of the display panels and the video presentation.

Alice Herscovitch, director of the Montreal Holocaust Museum, welcomed the young visitors. I loved what Alice told them: "The idea of this exhibit is not to frighten you, but to inspire you to have courage. Everybody has to change the world a little bit."

Alice's remark gave me an idea for the writing exercise I did with the students. (Don't worry, I gave them writing tips first -- I always give writing tips!!). Afterwards though, I asked the students to write about a time in their lives when they needed to summon courage. The students gave me permission to quote from their work. They attend a French school, so the workshop was in French, and they wrote in French too -- but for those of you whose French isn't strong, I'll provide translation services!

Clément wrote: "Moi, j'ai marché tout de suite apès une mini-tornade." Which means that Clément went for a walk following a mini-tornado.

Natan remembered, "Je faisais un concert de violon en solo, et je me sentais très nerveux." Natan was doing a violin solo and he felt very nervous.

Ernest wrote, "Je jouais avec mes amis, Une dame est venue nous crier dessus et elle nous a dit, 'qu'est-ce-que vous faites dans mon jardin?" Which means that Ernest and his friends were playing when a woman started shouting at them, "What are you doing in my garden?"

I told the students how many of my stories begin with truth (either I do research, the way I did with my mum's story, or I use my memory, the way I had the students do this morning.) But then I add an important ingredient: IMAGINATION. What if, for example. the angry woman in Ernest's story had phoned the police, and what if the boys ran away, and what if the police caught up with them and hauled them down to the police station? See! We just started to develop a story.

The most important part of today's visit was of course the exhibit. But hopefully, I gave the students something to think about too. And also, I can't resist telling you that there was a CTV reporter covering the event. HIs name is Julian McKenzie! Amd guess what? Julian was my Journalism student at Marianopolis College six years ago? If I sound proud, it's because I am.

If you're in Montreal, go see the exhibit!! And if you're elsewhere, I hope it'll make a stop near you.


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My Heart's in Dumas, Texas

It's been a busy day -- but like the title to today's blog entry says, I left my heart in Dumas, Texas.

That's because I started the day with two virtual visits to Grade Six classes at Dumas Intermediate School in northern Texas. I've been doing virtual visits to Dumas for several years, and they've always been wonderful... but today was extra-wonderful. I think it's because the students were so well-prepared and had such amazing smart and sensitive questions.

As usual, I started with some writing tips -- but the main reason I was asked to speak to the students was to talk about the Holocaust and my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mother's childhood experience in a Nazi concentration camp. My mom died almost two years ago -- but when she was alive and well enough, she used to join me on my virtual visits to Dumas. In fact, as I told the students today, her favourite part was remarking on how handsome the boys were. My mom was a real character, who had as we all do, good and bad traits. One of her best traits was that she loved meeting new people -- and even well into her 80's, she continued to be a big flirt!!

As I explained to the students, my mom kept the story of her Holocaust experiences a secret for more than 60 years. I'm the one (snoopy and determined could be my middle names) who forced my mum to share her story. Though it was hard for her to do, I think she was glad to have unburdened herself, and I know she felt that it was important for the next generation to learn the truth about the Holocaust. As I told the students today, when we hear the number six million (the estimated number of Jews who perished during the Holocaust), we get overwhelmed by the huge number. But when we hear one person's story, we can take it in and be changed by it.

The students had so so many great questions. I don't have room to tell you all of them here, but I'll give you a few examples.

Abraham asked, "Were you sad when you learned your mom's story?" My answer is a bit complicated, but I tried to be as honest as possible. Of course, I was sad to know how much my mom had suffered, but you know what? Part of me -- the writer part -- was excited and even happy to be getting such amazing, important material that I hoped to be able to share with readers.

Kennedy wanted to know, "How did the Holocaust affect your mom as a person?" I told Kennedy that my mom could never stand in a line -- I think that that's because at Theresienstadt, my mom's concentration camp, the prisoners had to line up for everything. Also, my mom could not stop eating cherries when they were in season. Cherries were her favourite fruit, and I think that when she had them, she remembered the years of starvation during the war. But as I explained to Kennedy, the Holocaust also affected my mom in positive ways. She was the free-est  person I have ever known. She didn't give a hoot for what other people thought. I think surviving the Holocaust made my mom so free.

Linday wanted to know how it felt to publish my first book. That was easy for me to answer. It felt amazing!

Collin wanted to know, "What are your favourite stories to write about?" Ohh, I loved that question. I told Collin that my favourite stories are about people who find the courage to face big challenges. And people who are loving and who can still maintain a sense of humour during hard times.

I'll end with Alan's question. He asked me, "Did your dad ever tell you his story?" I explained to Alan that my dad, who is half-Jewish was not sent to a concentration camp. Instead, he was hidden on a farm in Holland. I told Alan that every time I ask my dad, who is now nearly 88, but in amazing shape, about his wartime experiences, he just makes jokes. I think that's his way of avoiding my questions. So, you know what, Alan? Your question reminds me not to give up on trying to learn my dad's story too.

My heart feels very full from this morning's visit to Dumas. Kids, you were such an attentive, kind and open-hearted audience. Thanks for those questions, which really showed me what smart, good people you are. You made me feel more hopeful about the future of our world. Thanks to Mrs. Craigmiles for the invite; thanks to Mrs. Artho for the technical support; and special thanks to your teachers for preparing you so well.

I really do feel like my heart is with you all in Dumas. Lucky me that I got to cross paths with all of you! Now, go and uncover some secrets -- and turn them into books of your own!!


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New Beginnings -- Quebec Roots Goes to Genesis Class at LPHS

Artist Thomas Kneubuhler and I spent the morning with MIss Jackson's Genesis class at Lindsay Place High School. We were there to launch this year's edition of Quebec Roots, a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation educational program that teams up pairs of writers and photograhers with students across the province of Quebec.

The Genesis students will be contributing a chapter to this year's edition of Quebec Roots. Thomas (that's him sitting next to me in today's pic) and I will be helping students use images and words to tell their stories.

One thing's for sure -- these students have plenty of stories. Genesis is a small alternative program, and for many of the students, Genesis represents a new beginning. One of our goals today was to come up with a topic for their chapter -- and they chose "Genesis: new beginnings." One student volunteered to research the biblical story of Genesis, and write something about that for the chapter; a group of students are going to interview John, the person who founded the Genesis program more than thirty years ago. Sounds interesting, don't you think?

I covered some writing pointers, and Thomas shared some photography tips. I always like when writing and photography intersect. Thomas warned the students to avoid taking blurry photographs. I couldn't help jumping in to explain that using precise, detailed language keeps a piece of writing from being vague and blurry. When Thomas told the students to avoid using the flash when possible -- I was tempted to jump in and say "Avoid adverbs when you write!" -- but I felt I couldn't over-do my jumping in!!

When I talked about the necessity of re-writing, I told the students that I hate my own first drafts. A student named Elektra called out, "I feel you." That could be a sign that you're a writer too, Elektra!

A student named Daniel told me, "I hate getting into detail." I tried my best to make Daniel change his mind. I tried to explain that details (not too many, not too few!) make our writing come alive. And you know what? I think my lesson might have sunk in because when I was circulating around the room, looking at what the students had written, I read something beautiful and moving and DETAILED by... you'll never guess! DANIEL!

He wrote: "I'm getting a highway tattoo to always remind myself to keep moving forward."

See what I meant about detail?

Looking forward to working with the Genesis students -- and to seeing their photographs and stories. Special thanks to Blue Met's Fréderick Gaudin-Laurin for accompanying us today; and to teacher Miss Jackson for being fabulous and sharing her students with us.

Here's to new beginnings for all of us!

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"Write about what keeps you up at night" -- Visit to Rosemere High

I'm just back from an incredible visit to Rosemere High School. I was there to work with a group of Sec. II students -- most of them have Miss Lawrence for English, but some were invited to take part because they happen to be keen writers.

Because the students were so motivated, I made an impromptu decision: to try a brand new challenging exercise. To be honest, I was a little worried the exercise might turn out to be a disaster, but IT WORKED!! Anyway, you might be wondering about the quote "Write about what keeps you up a night" which is part of the title of today's blog entry. It's a quote from David Small, an American author and illustrator, whose graphic novel Sitches is one of my all time favourites. Though I never met David Small, my life changed when I heard him interviewed, and he shared that piece of advice: "Write about what keeps you up at night." (In fact, the day after I saw that interview, I started working on the novel that became So Much It Hurts -- which is based on an incident that still occasionally interferes with my sleep.)

So I asked the students to write about what keeps them up at night. I explained that that exercise was just for them -- that they didn't have to show me what they wrote. But I told them, "Keep that piece of paper with you always. Put it in a safe spot. One day, when you're ready -- turn it into a story." I also suggested that they consider using other art forms such as drawing or collage or making music to transform what keeps them up at night into something beautiful and meaningful.

As usual, I shared all my writing tips, and had the students do two other exercises. When I was talking about how writers need to ask "What if?" to help them advance their plots, a student named Laura remarked, "That sounds like anxiety. When you have anxiety, your mind is constantly working and never shuts off." Interesting! I'd never thought of the "what if?" mindset that way before -- and I suggested to Laura that maybe she should write about a young person who can't shut off her mind. I'd definitely want to read that story!

When the students did an exercise based on a memory, Laurence remembered, "When I cut my hair really short like a boy's. My head felt light." I thought that that memory would make a great story -- and would allow Laurence to explore gender roles and expectations.

A student named Michael gave me permission to share his beautiful and honest memory from when he was ten. Get ready for something powerful!

"When I was ten, I had a five year cancer remission party on Feb. 5th, 2015. I felt everyone's happiness. I saw the relief in my family's eyes. I tasted a bit of fear and I smelled amazing food of course."

See what I meant about powerful? And MIchael's done such a great job of combining observation (his family's relief), honesty (his own fear) and humour (the amazing food "of course"). You know what I say to that? That even though Michael told me he wants to become a doctor, I think he should also be a writer (it's possible to do both, you know.)

Thanks to Miss Lawrence for the invite to Rosemere High (rest your voice, Miss Lawrence, so that you give that laryngitis the chance to completely go away); thanks to student teacher Mr. Simon for helping things go smoothly; and special thanks to the students. You inspired me -- though I believe it was supposed to be the other way around!!


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More Cool Seniors! (Visit to Vista)

I've been making the rounds of seniors' centres -- recruiting participants for a seniors' storytelling event that will be part of next spring's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. On Tuesday, I was at Place Kensington in Westmount. Today, I visited Vista, which is so close to my house that I considered jogging over!

FIrst, I talked a little about the project -- actress Fanny Lacroix and I will be helping seniors prepare their story material. I'll be working on the writing; Fanny's in charge of performance. When Vista's recreation director, Riana Levy, heard more about the project, she came up with a great suggeston: that we get the storytelling started!

It felt to me like we had some natural performers at the table!

Helen Levy, who's 92, told a funny, but also touching story about a woman who was shoplifting at Helen's grocery store on St. Laurent Boulevard. For the culprit, the store represented home. My favourite part was when Helen told us how the women reacted after she was caught: "She put our her hands like this--" Helen raised her wrists in front of her "-- Take me away! Arrest me! But after I get out of prison, I'm coming right back!"

Jim McCormick, who's 71, told a story about something that happened to him when he was a kid. It was a Saturday morning, and JIm was sleepy when he went to collect the Gazette on the doorstep. I don't want to tell you what happened next  -- only that Jim forgot where he put the newspaper. And that it turned up later in an extremely unexpected spot. (Okay, here's a clue, it was in the kitchen -- but not on the counter!!)

Sylvia Stern, who's 97, made us laugh with her account of being a teenager sneaking home one morning at five AM. "How am I going to explain this to my mother?" Sylvia remembered asking herself. Let's just say Sylvia's mom wasn't easy to fool!

And Lilita Kruze, who's 62, told us how her little sister took off one day when the family was visiting Washingotn. "You"re boring!" the little girl told her family members before she disappeared. Luckily, there was a happy ending to the story -- it involved a police station, and a policeman's cap.

So, it's looking as if Fanny and I will be returning to Vista. I'm already looking to more great stories!

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A New Kind of Classroom

Teachers aren't supposed to have favourites -- but let's be honest, it sometimes happens!

I'm just home from Place Kensington, a seniors' residence in Westmount. I was there on a mission for the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation. Actress Fanny Lacroix and I will be working with 60 seniors this winter, helping them to prepare for a Blue Metropolis Festival event called Literarily Hilarious.

Fanny couldn't join me this morning at Place Kensington, so I had the class all to myself!

We talked about storytelling and humour -- and I made them laugh with the story about how I pretended to be a princess when I went to summer camp back in 1971! (That experience led me to write the kids' book Princess Angelica, Camp Catastrophe). We also talked about how some funny stories have a tragic edge.

Anyway, I had more than a dozen participants and they were focused and funny and smart.

I didn't take notes until I was leaving -- that's when I started chatting with Sheila Zittrer, who's spry and smart and fit at the age of 92. (That's Sheila with me in today's pic.) Sheila told me a wonderful story and she said I must pass it on to young people, so I told her I'd tell it to my students, and also to you, my blog readers. Here goes -- and a word of warning, the story isn't funny, it's dead-serious and it's about writing --

"The greatest upset of my life," Sheila told me, "was something that happened when I was nine or ten. I was an imaginative child. I wrote secretly in my bedroom. I had written 100 pages. It was a nonsense little story. I came out of my room one day and I was so proud. I said, 'Mom, you know what? I wrote a book!' And she laughed at me. I cried bitterly and I tore up everything. I never wrote again. I lost all confidence. The important lesson that I want young people to know is to keep trying. Don't let people discourage you!"

Sheila added that her mom was young and inexperienced -- so she would have had no idea of the impact of her laughter on her daughter's life...

Quite the story, no?

And you know what? Sheila may be 92 -- but she's about to start writing again! Thanks to Blue Metropolis's new project! It may be rainy and grey in Montreal today, but thanks to Sheila and the other seniors I met this morning, it's all blue skies and sunshine in my head. Special thanks to Place Kensington's Doreen Friedman for rounding up such a cool crowd!


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The Bilingual Mind

"The Bilingual Mind" is the name of a writing workshop I did yesterday at the beautiful Morrin Centre in Quebec City. The activity was part of Théatre La Bordée's Enjeux en Scène program. Since the subject was bilingualism (inspired by Larry Tremblay's play The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi which starts its run on Tuesday at La Bordée), not only did I present in two languages, but the 21 participants did writing exercises in our country's two official languages -- and even in some extra languages! BONUS! One participant wrote in Spanish; another taught us some Farsi words; and Martin told us why he got hooked on sign language!

The goal of the workshop was to jumpstart participants' writing projects, and to get us all to reflect on what it means to have a bilingual mind. The participants were of all ages and backgrounds. Among them were scientists, several translators, two journalists, a painter, a poet, and a group of students from Cégep Garneau (they admitted they were there for a class assignment, but I want to tell their teacher Tracy Burns that they were super fun and super smart -- that's a few of them in today's first pic). 

Because I'm interested in "mining" memory, I asked everyone to write about two memories -- a time when they first learned something (it didn't have to be another language), and a time when learning a new language was difficult or frustrating, or made them feel small.

A few years ago, I met a researcher who was in Quebec from France -- and she told me something I have never forgotten -- that a sign of true bilingualism is when, in your brain, you actually think in two languages. Maybe that's why I was so moved by something a woman named Madeleine (she's the painter) wrote: "Chez mes parents/ Our house must have always smelled like dog." I love the easy movement from French to English and I love how Madeleine "takes us there" with the sense of smell. I also love the simple beauty of the language Madeleine uses.

Most of the books written in more than one language are teaching manuals. I have a hunch that the time is right for Canadian literature that is truly bilingual. I'm not sure what shape that kind of literature will take, but something tells me it's coming.

At the end of the workshop, we produced a group poem, which I'm going to share here. Ready?!

I wish I spoke German

So I could speak to Germans.

Speaking new languages

Nous fait rencontrer le monde.

Learning French has improved my English.

I never expected that to happen,

But it did.

It was a happy surprise.

Did you know the word "finger"

Comes from the Farsi word "panjeh"

Which comes from the Farsi word "panj" which means five?

Hey, "panj" sounds a lot like "phalange"

Which means finger bones in French!

Music is a universal language.

When I play the piano,

I feel like I am communicating mes émotions.

Then there's sign language

Which is personal and organic.

We use our bodies --

Every twitch, every hesitation ... means something.

Sometimes language is a barrier.

Sometimes language is a gateway.

C'est à nous de choisir.

So? Pretty beautiful, don't you think? I'll be back in Quebec City on November 12 for an event called "Cohabitation linguistique. It takes place at Théatre La Bordée. I'll be on a panel with Kevin McCoy, Lauren Hartley and YA author Catherine Dorion. Many thanks to Rosie Belley, La Bordée's special projects coordinator; and La Bordée's artistic director Michel Nadeau, for inviting me to take part in these events and for welcoming me and my bilingual group to the Morrin Centre yesterday. Thanks, of course, to the Morrin Centre. And thanks to everyone who took part in yesterday's workshop. I know YOU were supposed to learn and have fun, but I know for sure that I learned and had fun!! Looking forward to seeing some of you again on November 12. In the mean time, let's make language a gateway!!!


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Special Visit to Vanier College's "Youth Culture" Students

The problem with today's pic is that you really can't tell how much fun we had!! (I only remembered to get a pic at the end of my session when most of the students had left.)

I'm home from my second visit this week to Vanier College where I worked with Sophie Jacmin's Humanities "Youth Culture" classes. (That's Sophie to my right, and next to her is Vanier Humanities teacher Lili Petrovic, who also came to hear my talk. Sophie and Lili are both authors themselves, so we have a lot in common.)

I worked with two groups of students -- all intelligent and sensitive and good listeners with good questions! I shared my usual writing tips, but the focus was on youth culture -- what kinds of things teens in my day and today are dealing with, and strategies we can use to help each other.

This morning, a student named Deb asked a question that I've never been asked before: "How do you grab teens' attention?" I told Deb that the most important thing is to be HONEST. I also explained that I try to write about the kinds of subjects I wondered about when I was growing up -- such as mental illness, loss, sex, love and finding our place in the world.

When I showed the students the journal that I write in EVERY DAY, I told them that being a writer takes as much discipline and practice as being an athlete, and that I work hard to keep my writing muscles limber. I caught a student named Mauricio nodding when I used the sports metaphor. It turns out Mauricio is on the Vanier basketball team, where he is a pointguard. When I talked about the joys, but also the frustrations of being a writer, Mauricio said he could relate. This is what he told me: "Sometimes I'm good in the game and I scream out of joy. I scream and it's acceptable. Other times, I have a bad practice, or it's after a bad loss, and I feel powerless." Me too!! And the trick, Mauricio, and all of you blog readers out there, is to keep on keeping on, whether it's when you miss the net, or when your sentences just aren't coming out right!

As usual, several students stole my heart. One was a young man on Monday morning who responded when I talked about what it feels like to love someone who has not always treated us right. I never learned the young man's name, but I had the strong feeling that he's got stories inside of him -- start writing, Sir!

Today, a young man named Kidus was sitting at the front of the classroom. (I can't help it -- I have a soft spot for students who sit up front since that's where I always sat!!). Kidus told me that he loves to write, but that he rarely feels satisfied with his work: "When I re-read, I feel like nobody's gonna read it and I give up." Give up, Kidus? Not anymore! Not now that you've met Monique!! The trick with writing, the trick with anything important and meaningful, is to keep trying even when it's difficult -- especially when it's difficult. And you know what? Even with 24 published books, I still find writing difficult. In fact, I think that's why I can't stop doing it!!

Special thanks to the students for being so open and kind; to Sophie for inviting me to speak and sharing your students with me; to Lili for joining the class; and to Writers in the Cegeps for making my visits possible. Here's to stories and courage and kindness!


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Why You Should Read Unity Club!

One of the fun things about being an author is hanging out with other authors -- and reading their books!

Karen Spafford-Fitz may live in Edmonton, but we've still had several chances to hang out over the years (mostly when one of her daughters was attending McGill University here in Montreal). Anyway, the two of us hit it off, and have stayed in touch. So though I didn't get to see Karen this weekend, I did get to read her latest YA title Unity Club (Orca Book Publishers).

It was a wonderful, uplifting and though-provoking read. One of the things I liked best about Unity Club was the narrator, Brett. As I mentioned to Karen in an email, I found it refreshing to meet a narrator who's basically a good kid. So many YA narrators these days (my own included!) are difficult, tough kids. Brett is one of those people who tries to do the right thing, even if that's sometimes hard.

When I asked Karen about her choice of narrator, she told me something super interesting -- that Brett's existence is due at least in part to American politics! Karen started writing Unity Club the day after the 2016 American presidential election. Here's how Karen explained it to me: "At that time, I felt a definite need to create a president who I hoped many people could better respect and relate to. I decided that my president would be a young female with a strong social conscience and strong convictions. I also decided that she would be open to re-evaluating her opinions as new information arose."

I told you that was super interesting, didn't I?!

The Unity Club that provides the title for Karen's book is a school club where kids do positive outreach work in their community. For example, they knit scarves and blankets for those in need. When I was reading the book, I couldn't help wondering how Karen knew so much about knitting. So I asked her about that too -- and guess what? It turns out Karen is a knitter, and that she sometimes donates socks and scarves she's knitted. Karen says that, "I always hope my hand-knit scarves and socks feel like warm hugs."

I love how real life finds its way into fiction!

I also asked Karen about her writing process. She explained that before she starts a project, she "interviews" her characters. This sounds like a trick I'd like to start using too. Here's how Karen said it works: "I get to know my protagonist by putting them through a sort of mock 'personal interview.' ... What is my protagonist’s most notable characteristic? What does that character want above all else? What is standing in their way? What is at stake if the protagonist is does notget what they want?"

I think those are amazing questions. In fact, I think they're worth putting on the whiteboard in my classroom. If you're working on your own stories, why don't you try interviewing your characterts too?

Even if Brett is a good kid, like all of us, she has her own struggles. Brett has a complicated relationship with her mom, who has moved to another city. Brett also has to deal with a fellow student who wanted to be president of the Unity Club too. And then there's Jude, the boy who lives at the nearby group home. Is he hiding something from Brett?

Long ago, a neigbour on the street where I grew up tried to teach me how to knit, but I never really caught on. In the end, it was the way Karen knitted this story together that touched me most.

Brett knits a scarf using a cable pattern. Towards the end of the book, Brett reflects on the pattern, "how it symbolizes a rope or a lifeline that brings people back home to safety." I love that line. For me, that's what reading a good book feels like too. A rope or a lifeline that brings us back home.

Hey, thanks Karen, for another great read! I'm already looking forward to your next book! XO Mo

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Another Amazing Day at Centennial Academy

One of the challenges of being a writer is finding the words to express feelings that are deep and important. That's how I feel as I start today's blog entry.

I'm just home from my second of two visits to Centennial Academy. I worked with the Grades Nine, Ten and Eleven classes, and though I had to shush a few students, I think even those students came around... and ended up learning a thing or two from a certain curly-haired writer.

I know I learned from the students I worked with. I'll start with what I learned about what it's like to be a student who doesn't enjoy reading. One of the grade tens, Nicholas asked me, "What happens if you totally hate reading?" Then he added, "I have a feeling a lot of people agree to this." Wow, that was a big moment for me. You see, I'm so into reading (and writing), that I can hardly imagine what it feels like not to love those things. So I told Nicholas that he needs to find the RIGHT BOOK for him, and that if he can't find it, TO WRITE IT!!! (I told the students how I once interviewed Sophie Kinsella, author of the wildly successful Shopaholic series, and she told me she came up with the idea for those books because, "I wrote what I wanted to read."

Another student in the same class, Kiara, asked, "What if you don't like to read because you don't understand what you're reading?" I had an answer for Kiara too. I told her she needs to read with a dictonary nearby, and that she need to tell herself she can do it! I also explained that since last year, I've been reading four books every month IN FRENCH for an ICI-Rad Can show called, Plus on est de fous, plus on lit! When I started, I wasn't sure I could do it. But I'm doing it, and my French has improved a lot. Kiara, you can do it too!

Other cool moments from today's visit:

I was talking about the five senses, and a Grade Eleven student named Jake pointed out that we have more than five senses. For exampe, he mentioned our sense of BALANCE, and the way we are able to perceive HEAT. Super interesting, Jake! WRITE ABOUT IT!

Another Grade Eleven student named Dario might want to become a reporter. He told me, "I can make people feel comfortable talking to me." You're right, Dario, that skill will come in handy when you do interviews.

When I explained that my favourite question is WHAT IF? a Grade Nine student named Zachary told me, "I make cartoons for fun and I ask, 'What if?'" COOL!!

And during a writing exercise, a Grade Nine student named Nina, wrote about a childhood dream in which, "I was trapped in a room with a gorilla." For the second part of the exercise, I asked students to write a new ending to their dream. This is what Nina came up with: "I would say to the gorilla, 'I'm not tasty. Please don't eat me. Let's be friends.'" I WANT TO READ MORE OF THAT STORY, NINA!

My heart and head feel full after today's visit. The Centennial students gave me a lot to think about, and a lot of good feelings. Thanks to Miss Byron for the invite. And don't forget -- find the book you need to read, or else go ahead and write it! Love from Monique

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First and Super Happy School Visit of the Year: Centennial Academy

I'm just home from my first school visit of the new school year. And did I ever have a wonderful time!! (I hope the students did too.) I was at Centennial Academy, working with three groups of students from Grades Seven and Eight, and I even did one presentation in French. I have to say the students at Centennial are delightful -- energetic, bright and funny. In today's pic, you'll meet Massimo, who stood up when I came in, and announced, "My name is Massimo and I read your book Finding Elmo in one day, the day before school started!" (So now you understand why Massimo gets to be in the pic!!)

Another funny moment: before a writing exercise, I asked the students to close their eyes so they could return to a memory from their pasts. When it was time to start writing, a student named Alamo asked me, "Do we write with our eyes closed?" OOPS! I had forgotten to tell the students to open their eyes. Nice catch, Alamo!

When I was working with Miss Bryon's Grades Sevens, I had the students make a list of words that start with the letter M. Dario came up with MALICIOUS. And Nathan came up with MORSE CODE. I have to say I was pretty wow-ed by those M words. Nice work, guys!

I talked about the things that matter most to me as a writer: doing research, paying attention to details, and REWRITING. A student named Kai from the French group asked, "Comment je peux écrire si je suis dyslexique?" I told Kai there are many great writers who are believed to be dsylexic, including one of my favourites -- James Joyce. I also suggested to Kai that he write a story about a young writer coping with dyslexia. Joyce was unusually playful with words, and some critics connect that to his dyslexia. So, as I told the students, often a perceived handicap brings its own special, surprising gifts.

In my last group, I met a student named Ava who told me, "I've been writing stories and getting stuck a lot." Luckily, I had some tips to help Ava get un-stuck. The first one is just accepting that getting stuck is part of being a writer. I told Ava that if I met a student who told me writing always comes easily and everything she writes is fabulous, I would know right away that person was NOT a writer. WRITERS GET STUCK! It's an occupational hazard! I also compared writing to running. When I run and I get a stitch in my side, there is only one thing to do: KEEP RUNNING. The same goes for writing. Ava, keep writing, and you'll get unstuck!!

I'll be back at Centennial next Friday to work with the senior students. Something tells me I'll have plenty to blog about! Thanks thanks to my friends at Centennial, especially Miss Byron, for inviting me to work with your students. Here's to stories and having fun and working hard -- and making writers happy!!

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Something to Blog About!

I'm back to full-time teaching after a glorious summer of full-time writing. Yesterday was the third day of classes at Marianopolis College -- and I thought I'd use today's blog entry to share a moment that felt especially meaningful (it gave me goosebumps -- if you know me, you'll know I get goosebumps when something important and beautiful happens... it's a handy trait if you're a writer).

You may be wondering what a photograph of Maurice Sendak's tiny picture book, Pierre, is doing at the top of this blog entry. Well, I'm about to explain that to you. On the first day of all my classes this semester, I decided to read Pierre to the students. If you don't know the book, you should read it ASAP (no matter your age). And if you know the book, you'll know that the moral of the story is: CARE. I told my students that, if they care about learning, they'll learn more and have more fun at school. I even suggested they try CARING in the classes they find most boring (hopefully, not mine!!).

Well, this is what happened yesterday -- in my Introduction to College English class, I asked the students to reflect on the kinds of activities and attitudes that help us learn. Someone remembered that last week, we had talked about REPETITION (for example, when students go over their notes after class it helps them remember what they learned). Someone else mentioned CURIOSITY, which we had also discussed the previous week. And then a student named Justin (I'm pretty sure it was Justin), said, "CARE!"

Ohhhh that made me so happy -- and gave me goosebumps. Though it is my 32nd year in the classroom, I had one of those eureka moments: it's the combination of CURIOSITY and CARING that makes magic happen. By magic, I mean LEARNING, but also GROWING.

We discussed this a little more in yesterday's class. If CURIOSITY involves the intellect, I asked the students, where does CARING come from?

And of course, they knew the answer: the heart or the emotions.

So magic happens when we put those two forces -- the brain and the heart -- together.

I'd never thought of learning (and living) this way before. So you see, even an old teacher can learn new tricks. Thanks to Justin, and the rest of his class, for this lovely lesson.

I told the students they're privileged to be able to attend school, and especially a great school like ours... but I also told them I'm privileged to be their teacher.

Here's to a great schoolyear for all of us!

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Reporting Back From Canada's First YA Festival!

YA festivals are a big thing in the United States -- they're events for kids (and adults too), where YA authors take part in panel discussions. Here in Canada, it's more common for kids' authors to give writing workshops when they visit schools or work with young people. So, because I mostly present in Canada, I'm used to the workshop format.

Yesterday was our country's first YA Festival -- and lucky me, I got to take part. The event was held at Montreal's Jewish Public Library, and it was the brainchild of New York-based middlegrade and YA author Sarah Mlynowski. She's in one of today's pics -- look for the woman with dark wavy hair. I have a soft spot for Sarah, not just because she's a wonderful author, but also because she was my student at Marianopolis College! To be honest, I can't take any credit for Sarah's success -- she was already a fabulous writer when she enrolled in my class. And you know what else? She was my daughter's babysitter!! (I also need to introduce you to the woman who's with Sarah and I in the pic -- that's Aimee Friedman. Not only is she a well-known author, she's children's books editor at Scholastic USA -- and she just happens to be Sarah's editor!!)

So, Sarah was chatting with Talya Pardo, children's librarian at the JPL -- and the two of them joined forces and made the festival happen. Nineteen YA writers from Canada, the U.S., and Mexico participated.

Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin, was the keynote speaker. (That's her with me in the first pic.) I learned loads of stuff from the other authors, but I thought I'd use today's post to tell you about Nic's writing tips. She believes that authors need to use their work "as weapons against injustice." She also told us that she loves acronyms -- and that her favourite animal is the rhino. So here come her tips -- RHINOS!

R stands for Reason. As Nic told us, "You gotta have a reason" for telling your story. H stands for Humility. I stands for Investigative Savvy. Or as Nic put it, "You have to do real real real good research." N stands for Nuance. Nuance, Nic said, comes during the revision stage. O stands for Optimism. Even when you're dealing with difficult, depressing material, writers need to stay hopeful. As Nic told us, "You as the writer have to have something you are clinging to that gives you some kind of hope. That will translate to the page." S stands for Self-care. Writing can be painful work. NIc joked that she sometimes resorts to cat videos as a way of taking a break from the hard work of writing.

Many many thanks to all the people who made the MTL YA! Fest happen. I've got lots more to tell you... but hey... I've got a re-write to work on. And I'll be thinking of Nic's advice -- the rewrite is the time to focus on Nuance. Here's to YA writers and readers, festival organizers, and RHINOS!!


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Return Visit to Rosemere High School

Hello hello blog readers!

I'm just home from a happy morning at Rosemere High School. I've been there many times over the years, so it's one of those schools where I feel right at home. Today, I worked with Ms. Lawrence's Enriched Grade 8's (that's Ms. Lawrence next to me in today's pic). Some of them were a wee bit sleepy when I started (hello Jade!), but I witnessed them wake up before my eyes (hello again, Jade!). Also, since I had nearly three hours with the students, there was time for some writing exercises, and I'm excited that they've given me permission to share some of their excellent work in today's blog post.

Early on, I did an exercise where we PLAYED with words (that's because writing is a lot of work, but we need to play at it too). I asked the students to make lists of words that begin with the letter J. Emma came up with the word judicious. She admitted that she had forgotten its meaning, but that she had recently looked it up for a vocabulary exercise based on Lois Lowry's novel, The Giver. Emma's admission made me happy because it reminded me of my favorite kids' books ever, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Close to the beginning of the book, Alice uses the words latitude and longitude. She says she does not know what the words mean, but that they are "nice grand words to say." See? Words can be fun to say and also write with!

Things got even more interesting when I had the students write about the book they most want to read, and when I asked them to write about a memory of being ten years old. That's when I got to read some excellent stuff. Here come some excerpts!

Here's how Geneviève began the book she most wants to read: "I was taken from the world and I will never see it again." Intriguing and powerful, no?

Martino said he wishes he could read about, "A young troubled boy who finds peace in the one thing he loves: hockey." Martino, write that book! I bet there are other kids besides you who would enjoy reading it!

Tristan wrote about his memory of leaving Paris to move to Montreal: "I want to stay here with my friends." The language in that sentence is simple, but haunting. Tristan, I say add the WHAT IF? question to your story. What could your narrator do to change his fate?

Tessa also came up with a super opening line: "I would look forward to a fight." Doesn't that make you want to read more? It turned out Tessa was writing about play-fights with her brother. Her opening is a great hook to catch the reader's attention!

Aidan couldn't come up with a memory, so he wrote, "Maybe I'm just boring." What I liked about that piece was Aidan's VOICE. Also, he sits at the back of the classroom, so he's in the perfect position to be an OBSERVER, which is a good thing in a writer!!

I'll end today's blog entry with a line from Alexia's piece: "I hadn't even known I was crying until the salty tears dripped off my cheeks." Oh, I do like that -- the fact that the narrator's tears catch her by surprise... feels so beautiful and true.

So... I was invited to Rosemere High School to inspire the students. But you know what happened? They inspired me! Thanks to Ms. Lawrence for the invite. Thanks to the kids for doing such good work. You're the last class I'll visit this school year. I hope to carry your inspiration with me all summer! As for you guys, keep READING and WRITING!

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Kicking Off This Year's Blue Met Kids' Festival at Ecole St-Germain

If you're wondering what I'm doing OUTSIDE in today's pic -- let me explain. To kick off the Blue Metropolis Children's Literary Festival this year, I was invited to do a school visit at Ecole St-Germain in Outremont, where I worked with Miss Marie-Sophie and Miss Caroline's grade five classes. And because the hour went by so quickly, I agreed to meet up with the kids in the schoolyard during recess. To be honest, I was a little worried that I wouldn't have any customers, but there were lots of kids!!

In the pic, I am showing the students my monkey man necklace -- if you know me, I'll have told you that story too! (It's coming out in book form next year!) But I was really at Ecole St-Germain to discuss my  latest book, Princess Angelica, Camp Catastrophe. I told the students how the book was inspired by something that really happened to me when I was in summer camp -- at exactly their age!

The students had super comments and questions. When I showed them the book I write in every morning, a student named Luca asked me, "Your thing? Is it a diary?" I liked how Luca put this question. I explained that in English (most of these kids' first language is French), the term "your thing" can mean the thing you really love. So, yes, Luca, that book is definitely my thing since I love writing (even if it's hard work).

When I explained that I write three pages in that book every single morning, a student named Clarence remarked, "I don't have enough ideas to fill three pages." I told Clarence, YES, YOU DO! And I suggested some approaches she could take to writing -- she could OBSERVE, explore her FEELINGS, and REFLECT. I also pointed out to Clarence that she doesn't need to write three whole pages. The important thing is to make writing a habit -- so she could write say a quarter of a page three days a week. (The exact formula is up to her.)

A student named Henri made me laugh when I mentioned the word TROUBLE -- because he said, "Trouble! Oh ya!" I told Henri my personal view -- that it is better to stay OUT OF TROUBLE, but if trouble ever happens to you TURN IT INTO A STORY.

And here's my favourite French word of the day. I know, I know, I wasn't supposed to be speaking in French -- or taking notes about French words, but well, I couldn't resist. I was explaining about the importance of writing MANY DRAFTS, and a student named Daniel commented, "Oh you mean BROUILLON." I knew that word, which is French for rough draft, but I hadn't thought of it in a long time. And don't you think the word BROUILLON sounds much nicer than plain old ROUGH DRAFT?

Thanks to the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation for sending me to Ecole St-Germain today; thanks to the teachers for sharing your students with me; and un grand merci aux élèves for being wonderful!

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Writers Writing -- Day 2 at Royal Vale School

I'm just home from a happy start to my week with two of Miss Bennett's English classes at Royal Vale School. You know what makes a writer (especially one who is also a teacher) happy? SEEING KIDS WRITE!! (Which explains the pic I took for today's blog post.)

Because this was my second of two visits with the students, today I focused on writing exercises (though if you know me, you won't be surprised that I also told a couple of stories!!).

For the exercises, I tried to give the students a mix of play and work -- since for me, writing is always a mix of those two elements. Mostly though, it's hard work -- but I find I need to add some play as I go along. I showed the students how writing even a simple list of words can be playful and remind us of the pleasure words can bring.

The big exercise, which I did with both groups, involved reconnecting with a memory from when the students were ten years old. As I explained to the classes, I don't think memories are as random as most people think. I believe that our memories are stories asking to be told!

I asked the students' permission to share a little of what some of them came up with. A student named Christopher remembered "the lunch line outside." What I liked about that is the unusual setting. I've read lots of stories about kids in classrooms, or even in the schoolyard, but never one about kids in a lunchline! I also noticed that a student named Rachel is good at description and creating atmosphere. She wrote: "I love the dark, but not the loneliness of the night." Nice!!

I also reminded the students to try and find out older people's best stories (and their secrets)! When I told this to the second group, I heard a student named Adriana say to herself, "I know my grandmother's." After class, I asked Adriana about her grandmother's story -- Adriana explained that when her grandmother was growing up in Italy, she knew a family that pretended to be poor in order to sell more of their products at the local market. Adriana, you should turn that into a story! You could try telling it from your grandmother's point of view!

Can you tell that Miss Bennett's classes inspired me? Because they did -- and that's a good thing since this author/teacher has the rest of the day to work on her own writing. Thanks to the students at Royal Vale for doing such a great job on today's writing exercises, thanks to Miss Bennett for hosting me, and thanks to the NDG Community Council, especially Sharon Sweeney, for making the visits possible. Let's all make this a great writing (and reading!!) week!!

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First of Two Visits to Royal Vale School -- I'd Call it a Success!

I was happy to get an invite to do two writing workshops this winter at Royal Vale School. Not only because my daughter is a Royal Vale graduate, but also because the school is around the corner from where I live -- BONUS!

I was there this morning, working with Miss Bennett's two Grade 10 English classes. I must say the time passed super-quickly. I just hope the students had as much fun with me as I did with them.

Today, I focused mostly on writing tips and a mini-writing exercise. When I'm back in two weeks, I'll finish up the tips, tell a story (or two... I'm kind of addicted to telling stories!!), and then we'll focus on a longer writing exercise.

In case you are wondering about today's pic... that's me and a student named PATRICK. Perfect name, of course, for St. Patrick's Day tomorrow. And Patrick was even wearing his green Dallas Stars T-shirt -- not to mention the Irish clover sticker on his forehead. And you know what else? Patrick happens to be IRISH. I think someone needs to write a St. Patrick's Day story about Patrick. Hey, Patrick, you should probably be the one to do it! Don't forget to add TROUBLE, the not-so-secret ingredient that makes stories tasty!

A student named Kayla stayed after class to tell me she has wanted to be a writer since Grade 3. I asked whether she learned anything new from me, and she said," I knew I had to do research, but I didn't know how deep I had to go." (This came, I think, because I told the students that in order to write my novel Straight Punch, I took boxing lessons for three years. I even demonstrated a straight punch!)

In the second  group, I tried a writing exercise I have done with my own students. I asked the class to close their eyes and imagine the book they wish they could read. (This exercise was inspired by author Sophie Kinsella, who told me she came up with the Shopaholic series because those were the books she wished she could find at a bookstore.) A student named Adriana gave me permission to share the blurb she would find on the book she most wanted to read. She even came up with a great book title: Not So Ivy League. Here's Adriana's blurb: "Ever had the feeling everyone was out to get you? Well that's exactly Lily's problem. She may have gotten into her dream school, but something just isn't right." CREEPY, NO? PLUS, DOESN'T IT MAKE YOU WANT TO READ ADRIANA'S BOOK?!! ADRIANA, GO FOR IT!!!

I'm off now to teach my own students at Marianopolis. Thanks to Miss Bennett's classes for getting my day off to a lovely start, thanks to Miss Bennett for your enthusiasm and for sharing your students with me, and thanks to the NDG Community Council, especially Sharon Sweeney, for making today's visit happen.


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Happy Afternoon at Evergreen School

I'm just home from a happy afternoon with nearly 100 Grades Three and Four students at Evergreen School in Ste-Lazare.  I usually work with older students, and I teach full-time at Marianopolis College, but you know what? I treated the Evergreen students the same way I treat my college students -- and it worked out fine!

I'll start with a couple of funny moments. I was telling the students that when I was a kid growing up in the 1960s, we didn't have computers. So a student named Roan asked a question that cracked me up: "Did you have erasers back then?" Yes, Roan, we did! And a student named Lucas told me, "I've never been this close to an author before." Also, when I asked the students what the first cousin of writing is, a student named Paige came up with the answer I was looking for: Reading. So when I learned that her name was PAIGE, well I thought that was just perfect (it's true there's an i in Paige, but still, close enough!!)

When I told the students that writers need to use the emotions they've experienced to bring their stories to life, I gave examples of some emotions: loneliness, sadness and feeling discouraged. A bunch of students raised their hands to add some more emotions -- and they had great ideas that I plan to use from now on when I do this part of my talk. Zoe suggested writing about ANGER. Good one, Zoe! Ethan suggested FRUSTRATED. Also excellent, Ethan. And Jonathan came up with DISGUSTED. Way to go, Jonathan!

Even though we were a huge group, the kids were focused and we even managed to do two writing exercises -- hey, that's more than I do with my own classes during one school period. I asked the students to imagine being someone different. Lucca came up with a really creative idea: "My name is Snarkolepsy. I am an alien soldier from the fourth quarter of Mars." Lucca, I want to read that story! I also told Lucca that the word narcolepsy (hinted at in his character's name) refers to a condition in which a person is constantly falling asleep. Lucca thought that perhaps he could add this fact to his character's story.

I also want to tell you about how my afternoon at Evergreen ended in a very special way. A student named Joseph told me that he had something inspirational to say, so I asked him to come to the front of the gym. He told his fellow students, "You is what makes you perfect. No one can stop you from achieving your goals." So, how about I end today's blog entry with Joseph's wonderful words?

Thanks to the teachers Madame Champoux, Madame Charland, Miss Jenkins and Miss Bowen, and to the aides Miss Shelley, Miss Serena and MIss Marie-Louise for sharing your kids with me; thanks to librarian Miss Tina for the invite and for getting things organized. But mostly, thank you to the kids. You were amazing!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The Moniques are Back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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YOUR STORY: Happy Day in Ottawa with MASC

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

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

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

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

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

Here goes --

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing, no? Heartbreaking, no?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Sweet Last Day at St. Thomas High School

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

Stories, stories everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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In Which I Meet Clever Kids -- and a Senator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I jotted down some of my favourite answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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