monique polak

Monique Polak's Books

Sep
13

What Happens When An Author Writes a Musical Comedy?

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

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

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

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

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

  1753 Hits
Sep
13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sep
09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1791 Hits
Aug
29

First Writing Workshop of the Season!

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

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

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

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

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

  1677 Hits
Jul
19

Dear Kimberly

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

Dear Kimberly,

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes from Monique

 

 

 

 

 

  1911 Hits
May
24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael's grandmother!

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

  1907 Hits
May
19

Loads of Stories at Joliette High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

  2130 Hits
May
18

Back to the Source of of Inspiration: Heritage Regional High

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2272 Hits
May
14

Putting the Fun Back Into Writing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1902 Hits
Apr
29

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2127 Hits
Apr
14

Follow the Clues -- from the Westmount Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1875 Hits
Apr
12

Follow the Clues to Create Your Own Detective Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

  1987 Hits
Apr
12

Why Holocaust Education Matters So Much

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1697 Hits
Apr
10

Frabjous Day at the imagiNation Writers' Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2086 Hits
Apr
07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1648 Hits
Apr
02

Time for a Writing Exercise!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

  1834 Hits
Mar
31

Writing Lessons from a Stand-up Comedian

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

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

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

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

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

  2135 Hits
Mar
17

It's Not Easy to Get Good Pics From School Visits

If you're an author who does a lot of school visits, and who blogs about it, you face a challenge that not too many people know about: coming up with interesting pics to go along with your blog posts. Usually, it's just a pic of yours truly with some budding writers. But today, during my second visit to Westwood Senior High School, I did better: I got you a pic of a double-jointed student named Marcus. I caught Marcus doing this impressive arm move during my talk, and because I am always thinking about you, dear blog reader, I whipped out my phone and got a pic!

Today, I worked with three grade nine groups. Many of the students had met me before when I spoke at Forest Hill, their elementary school. So, to shake things up, I talked less about writing tips, and more about what I've been up to lately as a writer. I told them about Bullies Rule, a manuscript I just sold to Orca, and which I am currently revising. All that's left on this rewrite is to fix the last chapter. That'll be tomorrow's big task. I told the students how I heard an interview with a neuro-scientist who explained that our brains are hardwired to solve problems. So instead of feeling distressed about fixing my last chapter, I am simply gong to tell my brain to have fun and get to work!

When we talked about re-writes, I asked students in Miss Havard's class if they ever handed in a first draft. Cassandra admitted that she had. Later, during the writing exercise I gave her class, Cassandra wrote a lovely paragraph about coming across an old photo from when she was ten years old. Hey, Cassandra, if you REVISE and RE-WRITE that piece, it's going to be AMAZING!

A student named Chelsea wrote a line I really liked -- and I asked her permission to quote it here: "Back to when we were happy." Don't you think that would make a beautiful book title? Hey Chelsea, write the book to go with it!

I sent Miss Phillips's class on a mini-expedition: to walk around the library and observe the other students working there. That turned out to be a fun exercise. (And I have to admit I made it up on the spot.) Being observant is an important part of a writer's job.

One of Miss Phillips's students, McKenna, showed me what she wrote later in our workshop -- a paragraph about how, when she was in Grade Three, a friend got angry when McKenna gave her a hug. "Now I hardly hug anymore," McKenna wrote. I found that line beautiful for its simple honesty.

But the highlight of today's visit -- besides meeting double-jointed Marcus -- was a little I had with a student named Olivia. "Now that I met you," Olivia told me, "I'm going to come back to the library and get a book at lunch."

Great to be with you guys today! Thanks to Miss Havard and Miss Phillips, and to librarian Mrs. Austen for the invite, and for making me tea!! Here's to reading and writing -- and stories of all kinds.

 

  1719 Hits
Mar
15

Happy Day at Lindsay Place High School

I do a lot of school visits -- plus I have three wonderful classes at Marianopolis College -- but some school visits just make me happy. That's how I felt yesterday when I worked with two groups of young people at Lindsay Place High School in Pointe-Claire.

In the morning, I worked with students enrolled in the school's Focus program -- that means they're taking what's called a work-oriented training path. Those are the Focus students in today's pic. They were lively, fun and smart. One of them told me, "My name is Eni -- like anything." Well, I whipped out my sheet of notepaper and jotted that one down. I am always on the lookout for names for my characters and I liked the way Eni put that. A student named Cooper had particularly good questions for me such as, "Do you write about your dreams?" The answer was YES YES YES. I think lots of people find that dreams are a source of inspiration. One of my friends, a therapist, says, "Follow your dreams." I told the students how for me, that means, paying attention to my dreams and writing about them in my journal.

Oh, the Focus students' teacher is Monique Thirlwell. She is next to me in the pic. (I don't often get to meet other Moniques and this one was a YOUNG one!). I have to say I teared up a little when, just as I was leaving at the end of the school day, the young Monique stopped me in the hallway and gave me a packet of notes her students had written to me. I was zooming off to Marianopolis, but I read the notes last night before bed... and well, what can I say?... except THANKS TO YOU GUYS for being such lovely, smart kids.

In the afternoon, I worked with Miss Jackson's Genesis students. Genesis is an alternative program at Lindsay. These students were wonderful too -- and did some beautiful writing. We talked about how memory fuels stories. A student named Brandon wrote about being bullied by a teacher when he was ten. You know what I was thinking? That I've never read a story like this before. Brandon, you should write it! It's an important subject. And a student named Nick gave me goosebumps (that happens when I read or hear an amazing story) about how an adult forced him to drink alcohol when he was ten. Here's the line that really gave me goosebumps: "If I couldn't drink like a man, I'd get hit like a man." Nick is a songwriter -- and he's using that material in one of his songs. Just want to tell you, Nick, that there's a real sense of triumph in being able to transform something painful into something beautiful. You have a gift for words -- and I hope you'll continue using it.

Okay, I guess now you can tell why it was such a happy day for me at Lindsay Place. Thanks to everyone I met, and especially to Miss Dunning, the school librarian, for inviting me and for being such wonderful company. I am definitely going to write about a library that has drawing tables and art supplies!

  2410 Hits
Feb
26

Lots of Characters at Westwood Senior High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  2200 Hits
Feb
14

Back in the Basement!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  2250 Hits
Feb
09

Oh Happy Day!

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

  1861 Hits
Jan
25

St. Thomas High School -- Part IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2244 Hits
Jan
20

St. Thomas High School -- Part III

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

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

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

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

  1780 Hits
Jan
18

St. Thomas High School -- Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1578 Hits
Jan
13

St. Thomas High School -- Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2085 Hits
Jan
11

Happy Day in Beauport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

  1955 Hits
Jan
07

The Moniques Take Kahnawake Survival School by Storm!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  2158 Hits
Dec
17

Oh Happy Day With Special Students at John Rennie High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1882 Hits
Dec
15

Day 2 at Horizon School -- Success!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1861 Hits
Dec
14

Expanding My Horizon(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2242 Hits
Dec
10

A Secret About School Visits: Thursday at Lindsay Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2138 Hits
Dec
09

Writing Lessons From a Dear Visual Artist Friend

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

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

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

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

  1726 Hits
Nov
25

My Mom and I Travel to Dumas, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

  1929 Hits
Nov
24

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

  1958 Hits
Oct
27

Writing Workshop That's Close to My Heart

This fall, I'm doing a series of writing workshops at a Montreal centre for women who have left abusive relationships. It's a project that's close to my heart because many years ago, I fled an abusive relationship myself.

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Today was the first of the workshops -- and I think it was a moving experience for all of us. I spent the first half hour sharing writing tips, but then we quickly moved on to writing exercises. (And by the way, I did most of the workshop in French because that's the first language of nearly all the women who attended.) Rather than telling you about the tips, I'm going to tell you about what some of the women said -- and wrote.

Many of the women already have an interest in writing. One of the participants -- I'll cal her V -- said, "J'écris pour mieux comprendre" -- which I thought was just gorgeous. If you need help with the translation, it's: "I write to understand better." Another participant, Eve (not her real name) really worked hard during the writing exercises. Afterwards, she observed, "I haven't expressed my emotions in writing for a long time." Interestingly, Eve explained that it's easy for her to tak about her emotions, but that putting those emotions on paper has always been more difficult.

Many authors (including me in my YA novel So Much It Hurts) have written about abuse. The challenge, I think, is to TAKE readers THERE. V did that beautifully when she told us how, after she left her abusive partner, she felt sad for her dog who missed him. That detail touched me and I know I won't forget it. V, you took us there with your story.

A little over a week ago, I was walking along the beach in Tofino, British Columbia, thinking how as a writer I need to focus on the stories that matter most to me. Today was a reminder of exactly that -- what matters most. For me, it's courage and resilience. I'm the one giving the writing workshop, but I'm aready getting a lot from it. A grand merci to the participants and to the organi2ers for bringing me there...

  2120 Hits
Oct
20

Fun Morning With Students from Central Middle School

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I'm just back from the Victoria Public Library's main branch, where I had a whirlwind session with three groups of Grade Seven French immersion students from Central Middle School. It's not too often that I meet anybody with hair as wild as mine -- but you'll see from today's pic, that I met my match today -- a student named Gabe. And half of Gabe's hair is GREEN! What do you think, blog readers, wouldn't a half-green-haired kid make an interesting character in a kids' book?

The best thing for me about today's session was the number of questions and comments from the audience. In all my years of doing author visits, I don't think I've ever had so much reaction from a group. And the question and comments were great. I'm going to share some of them in today's blog entry. When I talked about the importance of getting stories from grandparents (if you are lucky enough to have grandparents -- if not, borrow someone else's!), a student named Katya looked at me in a way that told me she was close with a grandparent. Later, Katya told us about her grandmother, and I hope you get started on interviewing her, Katya!

When I showed the students my daily journal, Echo asked, "Qu'est-ce que tu écris IN ça?" (We all thought the bilingual question was fun.) I told Echo that for me, my daily journal serves to keep my writing muscles limber, and that I do whatever I want in my journal -- say why I'm happy when I'm happy, complain when I'm grumpy, and try to find solutions to my writing problems when I am grappling with a story. Many of the students wanted to know whether I had read the book, or seen the movie, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I told them I hadn't, but their question made me think that maybe I should.

This was the last of my school visits in British Columbia for this week. Some people get really wiped out from doing visits and talking to groups of students, but I'm the opposite. Working with students during my visit to Vancouver Island has given me EXTRA ENERGY. Plus it's made me realize I had better get back to work on my newest book project ... how else am I going to get invited back to this beautiful part of our country?

Many thanks to librarian Sarah Isbister, for making today's visit happen, and to the students' teachers, including Mrs. Martin, who turns out to be a former Montrealer. To Mrs. Martin and her fellow teacheers, thanks for sharing your students with me. They were smart and fun. Lucky me!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The very best thing about today's session was that in all my years of doing author visits, I don't think I ever had so many questions and comments from an audience.

  1653 Hits
Oct
19

En français à Esquimalt

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I'm writing today's blog entry from Serious Coffee, a café in Esquimalt, British Columbia. I got walked over here by the loveliest group of grade sevens (that is them in today's pic) from Ecole Victor-Brodeur, after I did a reading/writing workshop this morning at the Esquimalt branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library. Victor-Brodeur is a French school and because these students rarely get to meet a French-speaking author, I was asked to do my presentation in French. It's also handy that two of my books have been translated into French.

I told the students how I am always on the look-out for stories -- especially ones involving trouble. For example, one of the liveliest participants this morning was a guy named Hamzah, whose wrist was bandaged up. So I asked him what happened -- and learned he'd had an accident playing soccer. That experience could go into a story, Hamzah! I also demonstrated how I use the question WHAT IF? to fuel my stories. What if, I asked the students, I kidnapped Hamzah and brought him back to Montreal with me on Wednesday morning? Don't worry, blog readers, I'm not planning to commit a felony -- just playing with story ideas!

We also discussed how, for most writers, myself included, publication only comes after numerous (often frustrating) attempts. Together, we came up with the perfect way to say this in French: "L'échec conduit succès." (Special merci to the students' teacher, Madame Carole, who contributed to that translation.) I'll be doing a second presentation this afternoon to another group of kids from Victor-Brodeur. If they are even half as wonderful as this morning's group, I'll be in for a happy afternoon.

PS: The second group was just as wonderful and fun. I don't know what the folks are doing at Ecole Victor-Brodeur, but whatever it is, keep doing it. The students I met today were bright and enthusiastic; it was a real pleasure for me to work with them. Special thanks to librarian Joy Huebert for your company -- and for ferrying me around today.

  1810 Hits
Oct
17

Special Visit to North Island College in Port Alberni

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-7.JPG Question: What happens when an energetic author-teacher who has not taught a class in five months gets invited back into a classroom?

Answer: Let's just say she causes quite a kerfuffle!

I think that's an accurate description of how things went down last night when I did a writing workshop at North Island College in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island! I haven't had so much fun in a long time!

One of the things that made the evening so special was that my "students" were a really mixed group. There were several young people from the local high school, as well as professors from the college, and a couple who traveled all the way from Nanaimo to hear the talk. Another thing that made the evening special was that it began with a welcome from Irene Robinson, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation. (That's Irene in the left corner of today's pic, wearing a grey top and waving.) Irene welcomed me to the Tseshaht territories and told us about the value the Tseshaht have always placed on stories. "Stories," she said, "are important to our people. Stories are a way to pass on knowledge and to teach."

When I do talks like the one I did last night, one of my goals is to tell the truth about the writing process (well, my writing process anyway). How it's not all la-dee-da, and how I sometimes feel discouraged, and how sheer persistence helped me get published in the first place. The group was great -- lively and responsive, and when I gave them a writing exercise, no one groaned! Grace (she was one of the people who came all the way from Nanaimo) used the exercise to remember a painful moment in her past -- when, at the age of fifteen, she discovered her mare had been abused. That was an example of something else we talked about: how difficult, troubling experiences can fuel stories.

This was my second visit to NIC. I was there in 2006, as part of a Canadian Children's Book Week tour. That's when I met librarian Sherry Kropninski, who helped get me invited back this year. Special thanks to Sherry, and to the English Department's Peter McGuire, who also made it possible for me to return to NIC. And to Sherry's daughter Savanna, for her excellent company -- anf for letting me pick her brain for the new story I am working on. And thanks, too, to the Quebec Writers' Federation for sending me to Vancouver Island in the first place.

I'll be doing four more talks in Victoria last week... but my visit to Port Alberni will always hold a special place in my heart. Thanks to all of you who were there for reminding me why I love to share what I've learned about writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1616 Hits
Oct
17

Special Visit to North Island College in Port Alberni

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-7.JPG Question: What happens when an energetic author-teacher who has not taught a class in five months gets invited back into a classroom?

Answer: Let's just say she causes quite a kerfuffle!

I think that's an accurate description of how things went down last night when I did a writing workshop at North Island College in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island! I haven't had so much fun in a long time!

One of the things that made the evening so special was that my "students" were a really mixed group. There were several young people from the local high school, as well as professors from the college, and a couple who traveled all the way from Nanaimo to hear the talk. Another thing that made the evening special was that it began with a welcome from Irene Robinson, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation. (That's Irene in the left corner of today's pic, wearing a grey top and waving.) Irene welcomed me to the Tseshaht territories and told us about the value the Tseshaht have always placed on stories. "Stories," she said, "are important to our people. Stories are a way to pass on knowledge and to teach."

When I do talks like the one I did last night, one of my goals is to tell the truth about the writing process (well, my writing process anyway). How it's not all la-dee-da, and how I sometimes feel discouraged, and how sheer persistence helped me get published in the first place. The group was great -- lively and responsive, and when I gave them a writing exercise, no one groaned! Grace (she was one of the people who came all the way from Nanaimo) used the exercise to remember a painful moment in her past -- when, at the age of fifteen, she discovered her mare had been abused. That was an example of something else we talked about: how difficult, troubling experiences can fuel stories.

This was my second visit to NIC. I was there in 2006, as part of a Canadian Children's Book Week tour. That's when I met librarian Sherry Kropninski, who helped get me invited back this year. Special thanks to Sherry, and to the English Department's Peter McGuire, who also made it possible for me to return to NIC. And to Sherry's daughter Savanna, for her excellent company -- anf for letting me pick her brain for the new story I am working on. And thanks, too, to the Quebec Writers' Federation for sending me to Vancouver Island in the first place.

I'll be doing four more talks in Victoria last week... but my visit to Port Alberni will always hold a special place in my heart. Thanks to all of you who were there for reminding me why I love to share what I've learned about writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1527 Hits
Oct
17

Special Visit to North Island College in Port Alberni

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-7.JPG Question: What happens when an energetic author-teacher who has not taught a class in five months gets invited back into a classroom?

Answer: Let's just say she causes quite a kerfuffle!

I think that's an accurate description of how things went down last night when I did a writing workshop at North Island College in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island! I haven't had so much fun in a long time!

One of the things that made the evening so special was that my "students" were a really mixed group. There were several young people from the local high school, as well as professors from the college, and a couple who traveled all the way from Nanaimo to hear the talk. Another thing that made the evening special was that it began with a welcome from Irene Robinson, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation. (That's Irene in the left corner of today's pic, wearing a grey top and waving.) Irene welcomed me to the Tseshaht territories and told us about the value the Tseshaht have always placed on stories. "Stories," she said, "are important to our people. Stories are a way to pass on knowledge and to teach."

When I do talks like the one I did last night, one of my goals is to tell the truth about the writing process (well, my writing process anyway). How it's not all la-dee-da, and how I sometimes feel discouraged, and how sheer persistence helped me get published in the first place. The group was great -- lively and responsive, and when I gave them a writing exercise, no one groaned! Grace (she was one of the people who came all the way from Nanaimo) used the exercise to remember a painful moment in her past -- when, at the age of fifteen, she discovered her mare had been abused. That was an example of something else we talked about: how difficult, troubling experiences can fuel stories.

This was my second visit to NIC. I was there in 2006, as part of a Canadian Children's Book Week tour. That's when I met librarian Sherry Kropninski, who helped get me invited back this year. Special thanks to Sherry, and to the English Department's Peter McGuire, who also made it possible for me to return to NIC. And to Sherry's daughter Savanna, for her excellent company -- anf for letting me pick her brain for the new story I am working on. And thanks, too, to the Quebec Writers' Federation for sending me to Vancouver Island in the first place.

I'll be doing four more talks in Victoria last week... but my visit to Port Alberni will always hold a special place in my heart. Thanks to all of you who were there for reminding me why I love to share what I've learned about writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1733 Hits
Oct
13

Q: "Why do you have to write?" A: "Because reasons"

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Sorry about the upside down picture! Hopefully by the time you read this blog entry, I'll figure out how to turn it right-side-up!

I'm writing to you today from the Victoria Public Library (children's section, of course!), where I came to deliver MONTREAL BAGELS. I'm in Victoria and other parts of Vancouver Island for a book tour.

One of the many amazing, wonderful things about being here in BC is that I get to hang out with my many friends from Orca Book Publishers. In today's upside-down pic, I am with my friends/editors/authors Sarah Harvey (in the middle) and Robin Stevenson (in the cool hat). Sarah made me delicious breakfast this morning, and then we met up with Robin at the Cornerstone Café in Fernwood. And because I am always thinking of YOU, dear blog reader, I whipped out my notebook and asked them both a question I've been thinking a lot about lately: WHY DO WE WRITE ANYWAY?

Like me, Robin, whose latest YA novel is called The Summer We Saved the Bees, and who has two books coming out with Orca this spring (Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community -- she's holding an advance reading copy in the pic -- and Under Threat), usually has a book in progress. When I asked her why that is, she answered, "Because reasons" -- and then she explained that this is something her 11-year-old son would say. I decided that that was a really profound answer! Robin added that, "Even if I'm ignoring it, I like having something to think about."

Sarah had a slightly different, but equally interesting answer. She told me, "I do not always have to be writing, but I always have to be reading." She speculated that because she spends so much time editing other people's writing (inclduing mine and Robin's!) that she needs occasional breaks from writing. When earlier this morning, Sarah and I stopped in at the Orca Book Publishers office, we visited with associate publisher Ruth Linka and Ruth passed on her copy of Louise Penny's latest novel, The Nature of the Beast, to Sarah. Well, Sarah was so glad to get the book that she clutched it to her chest. Proof that she needs to read all the time -- and that books make authors happy!

Sarah's upcoming YA novel is called Spirit Level -- both Robin and I got to read early versions of the manuscript and we loved it. For Sarah, and I think it's the same for many of us in this business, writing is not only about getting words on the page. Here's how she put it. And get ready... there are hand gestures involved! "I don't think of writing as being this [Sarah tapped at an imaginary keyboard]; I think of it as being this [Sarah tapped at the side of her head.]" ALL THIS TO SAY... I thought this was a wonderful conversation, and I hope you've enjoyed it too. Here's to tapping at keyboards and tapping into the imagination -- and to great conversations with good friends!

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1815 Hits
Oct
08

When Imaginary Characters Come Alive

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You know your writing is going well when someone else talks about your characters as if they are alive!

That's what happened last weekend when I met up with Raphaella -- the young writer I am mentoring as part of a special Quebec Writers' Federation Project.

Rapahella is working on a book project, and if you look carefully at today's pic, you'll notice the names of some of her characters such as Owen and Parker. If anyone was listening to my conversation with Raphaella on Saturday when we met up at a coffee shop in Laval (which is when I wrote the notes that I photographed for today's pic), they'd definitely have thought that Owen and Parker were real people. That's because we were talking about what makes these two boys tick, what their relationship is like, and whether Parker ever gets fed up with Owen. At one point in our meeting, I told Raphaella that it felt to me as if we were discussing flesh and blood people -- and that, for me, is a sign that a story is really working!

This is my second blog entry about Raphaella. The last time I told you about her and the work we are doing together, I explained how impressed I was that Raphaella is so open to comments and suggestions. Some young writers are less open to input. I had the same positive impression of Raphaella when we got together on Saturday. Lucky me!

I'll finish up today's blog entry by sharing something Raphaella told me when I asked her why she enjoys writing. She said, "I'm not expressive orally, but the writing pours out. I've always had trouble saying it out loud." How wonderful, I thought, to have the writing pour out! Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, you'll get to read about Owen and Parker too -- and find them as real as I do!

 

 

  2004 Hits
Aug
24

Holocaust Stories

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

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

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

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

  2213 Hits
Aug
12

104 Fewer Students than Usual

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Marianopolis College resumes next week, but I won't be back in the building till the middle of January. That's because this semester I'll be on a writing sabbatical. However, it doesn't mean I won't have any students. Thanks to a special Quebec Writers' Federation project, I have begun mentoring a young writer named Raphaella.

To be honest, I was not looking for another project, but when the QWF approached me about this opportunity, I said, "I'll only do it if I really like Raphaella's writing" -- and you can guess what happened next. I liked it -- a lot!

Tonight, Raphaella came to my house for our first meeting. I had reviewed the first chapter of her work in progress -- and we went over it together in detail. We also discussed some basic principles such as the need to SHOW, NOT TELL; that ADVERBS ARE EVIL AND SHOULD BE ELIMINATED WHEREVER POSSIBLE; and that RESEARCH is often an essential part of the fiction-writing process. One of Raphaella's characters is a songwriter, and it turns out Raphaella has a cousin who writes songs -- so she is going to interview him and get interesting details to work into her story.

Not only is Raphaella a fine writer, but she was receptive to my comments and suggestions. When I asked her at one point whether she could handle more suggestions (I'd already given her a lot), she said, "This is what I wanted." That comment inspired me. Like Raphaella, I work with editors too -- and it's good to be reminded that being edited is a privilege.

Before I dropped Raphaella off at the metro station, I asked whether I had overwhelmed her -- that's because I know I can have an overwhelming effect on people and also because I gave Raphaella the attention I usually store up and give to 105 students! Here is what Raphaella answered: "You're very quirky [this could be because she saw me wipe the cat's feet when he came in from outside] and also very interesting. You cover all the bases at the same time." If you know me, you'll agree this assessment is right-on!

Next time, I'll ask Raphaella's permission to let me quote a little of her story. As for me, I'm delighted to work with such a bright, receptive and talented young writer. I expect I'll learn a lot from the process too!

  2214 Hits
Jul
05

Hooked on Writing Books!

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The reason I haven't been such a faithful blogger lately is that I've been juggling three book projects. My last deadline was July 1st -- and I made it! Now, if I was a more normal sort of person, I'd probably be glad to have some time off from writing books. But the thing is I'M HOOKED AND I CAN'T STOP.

So, I thought I'd use today's blog entry to explore why that might be.

I love having a project on the go. And I love having an imaginary world to think about. And I also love doing research -- exploring new subjects and asking lots of questions. That's why for today's pic, I took a photo of the four sheets of notes currently on my desk. Each sheet has a different book idea. Over the next few days and weeks, I plan to start doing preliminary research on all four topics... and the one that "calls" to me most, well that'll be my next project!

And because I think it's important for authors to be honest about their work -- especially authors like me who want to help inspire others to write -- I should tell you that even after having published 17 YA novels, and with three more books due out in spring 2016, I still find writing difficult. And you know what? That's also why I'm hooked. Because even if it's hard work, and often frustrating, I think I like doing difficult, challenging things.

You may know that I am a great fan of Lewis Carroll's -- and that I wrote my MA thesis on the Alice books (and that yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the day Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, told Alice Liddell and her sisters the story that led to the first Alice book). Well, my very good friend Kevin recently sent me a wonderful new biography of Lewis Carroll called The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Writing about our need for fiction, Douglas-Fairhurst quotes Julian Barnes's novel, Flaubert's Parrot: "Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you. Life is where things aren't. I'm not surprised some people prefer books." I LOVED THOSE LINES. They also help explain why I'm hooked on writing books. I hope you are, too!!

 

 

  2471 Hits
May
14

It's Not Every Day A Former Student Invites Me to Work With Her Students!

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See that sweet young woman kneeling next to me in today's pic? It's Lea Beddia -- whom I taught at Marianopolis College some 15 years ago. Today, I drove northeast of Montreal to Joliette, where I worked with Miss Beddia's Grade Seven English classes at Joliette High School. Miss Beddia (Lea to me!) is just as smart and funny as I remember her and I must say it was a special delight to see one of my former students doing such great work with her own students!! I know I shouldn't take credit... but I still do!!

I turned up at lunch time, so I got to hang out with Miss Beddia and some of the school's budding authors. Afterwards, I worked with about 40 students, sharing writing tips and, of course, telling a few stories. Then Miss Beddia divided the students into smaller groups so I could give them some one-on-one advice about the creative writing pieces they have been working on. 

Whenever I do school visits, I like to share highlights of my day -- so here they come! At lunch, a student named Chloe said, "If you write about yourself as a character, you can find out more about yourself." That comment led those of us sitting at our table to discuss the connection between ourselves and the characters we create. I think that in some way, our characters are reflections of us -- and that sometimes they represent the parts of ourselves we seldom ,if ever, get to express! Why else do I keep writing about troublemaking boys?!!

Many of the students at JHS spend a lot of time on the schoolbus. Julia (who kindly corrected some French notes I am preparing for a radio column next week -- grand merci, Julia!) told me she uses her time on the bus to "observe people and imagine their stories." Spoken like a real writer, Julia!

When I was sharing writing tips, I asked the students, "What do you think happens when I write?" A young man named Nikolas came up with a great answer. He said, "You make a lot of mistakes!" And that's totally true -- and helps explain why I spend even more time REwriting than I spend writing my first drafts!

I also met a student named Blanche. When I told her how much I liked her name, Blanche told me her middle name is Neige. For those of you blog readers who do not speak French, that translates into "Snow White." Beautiful, don't you agree?

During a short writing exercise, Sebastien wrote about the last time he saw his great-grandmother. Here's a line that gave me shivers from Sebastien's piece: "Just by shaking her hand, I knew something was wrong."

I wish I had taken notes when I was looking at the students' stories -- but I was too busy reading and trying to provide some useful feedback. But I do remember a few of the suggestions I came up with: add dialogue to add life to your writing; show -- don't tell; take the reader with you by providing sensory details; and lose the adverbs.

Thanks, Miss Beddia, for staying wonderful all these years and for sharing your classes with me today; thanks Miss Murphy for letting us use your beautiful Community Learning Centre; and thanks to the students for working so hard! You guys were great!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  2822 Hits
Apr
30

Happy Day at Heritage Regional High School

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Heritage Regional High School in St-Hubert is one of those schools I have visited so often that I feel at home in the hallways and the cafeteria -- and especially the libarary. Over time, I have also become good friends with Mrs. Eva, the head of the school's English department and a devoted creative writing teacher.

Today, I did three writing workshops at Heritage -- and I thought I'd use this blog entry to share some of the high points. For me, the first high point was during Mrs. Eva's introduction, when she told the students: "You need to find your voice. You need to find what interests you." I could not agree more. Whenever I am thinking about a new book, I always asks myself a similar question -- what interests me most at this point in my life? The answer often leads to a new project!

In one of my workshops, I asked students to observe an object, but to make sure that the observation was connected somehow to an emotion. A student named Charles observed the clock on the library wall. The clock has a green Heritage school crest on its face. As Charles wrote, "it gives me the feeling of obligation." Nice obseration, Charles! Make sure you work that clock into your next story!

I talked a little about my mom today, too. I told the students how she has given me permission to talk about some of the difficulties she's had in her life, and how she once told me, "If you think it helps young people to tell them these things, go ahead and tell them." On his way out of the library, a young man named Tristan stopped and said, "Tell your mother I appreciate what she's done in her life." Will do, Tristan!

My last session was with Mrs.Eva's enriched English group. I tried to tell them the truth about writing -- that for me, it is often a difficult, frustrating process and that even after having published 17 YA novels, I still feel sometimes like I am groping in the dark when I write. So I was happy when, at the end of the day, a student named Sarah said, ""I liked that you were honest." A student named Lydia added, "When people hide you from reality, you end up getting hurt."

So, a big thanks to Mrs. Eva -- for your dedication to your students, and for being such a good host. And a big thank you to the students for being such excellent workshop participants. Now, remember what I told you: stay out of trouble, but if trouble strikes, use it in a story! And never ever stop reading and writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  3104 Hits
Apr
22

Reporting in: Day 2 at the MASC Young Authors Conference

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The young man in today's picture is named Anderson -- and he was in my workshop today at the MASC Young Authors Conference in Ottawa. See those beautiful front teeth? There's a story behind them! When we were discussing how it's important to have trouble in our stories, Anderson shared a real-life story with us. When he was out skiing, the T-bar hit Anderson in the mouth and his two front teeth got knocked out. YIKES! Luckily, the dentail surgeon was able to save both teeth -- and now Anderson sure has a story to tell! I asked whether when he was holding his teeth in his hand there was blood -- Anderson said no. That's when I gave him a good tip for fiction writing: LIE! We all agreed that readers would enjoy as gorey a description as possible -- and I even suggested he could add a few drops of blood to the snow.

It turned out that several students in my morning workshop had tooth stories of their own. A couple thought it was a sign that I should use teeth trouble in one of my new book projects.

Another interesting thing we discussed: how our shoelaces reveal something about us. That was because my shadow (meaning my personal assistant) this morning, a student named Jessica, was wearing sneakers -- and the laces on one of them were untied. We did a count, and about half of the kids in the workshop, double-tie their laces. We decided that double-tiers are probably more careful people, that they worry about tripping -- and that non-tiers like Jessica are freer spirits. This, I thought was a great moment to teach students the writing rule SHOW; DON'T TELL. Rather than saying a character is careful, consider having him or her take an action such as double-tying his or her shoelaces!

In the afternoon workshop, I asked students to come up with interesting observations about our room. Alex observed "one empty chair" -- and I thought that would make a great title for a book. One Empty Chair -- haunting, don't you agree? A student named Moira gave me permission to quote from a beautiful piece she wrote about her memory of being forced to take a nap at daycare. Here comes the quote -- get ready for some super writing! "I didn't want to admit that I slept well. I tried to think of what I had dreamed about, but the memory had already slipped away. This confused me. I thought someone had stolen my dream." I LOVE LOVE LOVE the bit about the stolen dream.

So, you can probably tell that I've been enjoying myself at the MASC Young Authors Conference. To the students I've been working with -- thanks for the inspiration -- and for your hard work!!

  2423 Hits
Apr
21

Reporting In: Day 1 at the MASC Young Authors Conference

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It seems appropriate that I am FLYING HIGH after Day 1 at the MASC Young Authors Conference in Ottawa -- since it was held in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum!

The two groups of students I worked with were amazing. In the first group, a student named Abdel told me, "I read a lot because it enhaces my vocabulary" -- and Abdel is only ten. Then a student named Laura raised her hand to say she reads the dictionary sometimes. Which led me to discover that Natassia, Cohen, Meisha, Briana, Mikael, Oliver, Ketsia, Rebecca, Kindra and Ella are also dictionary readers!

If you are wondering what is going on in today's pic... I took it when I gave the students an exercise to write a book blurb, and a student named Kindra wanted to hide what she had written. As I told Kindra, I consider that a sign that her work must have been important and terrific. Write that book, Kindra!

A student named Allegra asked me a question that I thought was just brilliant: "What if you have so many great ideas -- how do you choose one? And what if you start one, but then you feel like starting another? How do you ever finish?" Wow, Allegra, that question makes me think you really understand what goes on in a writer's mind. You know how I finish? By sheer stick-to-it-iveness.

In my second group, a student named Brenna started writing a story that I really really hope she will continue working on. Here's how it begins: "The shotgun felt heavy in my five year old arms. My uncle holds my arms steady as he takes off the safety." Now aren't you eager to know what is going to happen next?

It's time now to go to a party with my fellow writers and illustrators. I'll keep posting about my adventures here in Ottawa over the next couple of days. Thanks MASC for inviting me, and thanks to the students I worked with today -- you guys were amazing. Keep reading the dictionary!! And writing and reading books of all kinds!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  2364 Hits
Apr
17

Authors for Indies Coming Up Soon

When I was a girl, my dad's law office was in Dominion Square Building, on the corner of Peel and Ste. Catherine Streets in downtown Montreal. On Saturday mornings, my dad sometimes let me tag along when he went to the office to do extra work. One reason I loved going was that he used to let me raid the supply closet -- I'd load up on pens and steno pads and because photocopy machines had not yet been invented, something called carbon paper. But the other reason was that on the Saturday mornings I went downtown with my dad, he'd always let me stop at W.H. Smith, the bookstore that for many years was located in the building's lobby. That's where my love of bookstores first began.

On Saturday, May 2, Authors for Indies comes to Canada. Begun by one of my favourite writers, Sherman Alexie, Authors for Indies is a way to support independent booksellers. At last count, 104 Canadian bookstores have arranged to participate. These stores will be hosting authors -- including me. For one day, we'll be volunteer booksellers, talking to customers about our favourite subject -- books, of course!

I'll be volunteering at two West Island bookstores that day. From 11 AM until 1 PM, I'll be at Librairie Clio. Other authors who'll be in-store that day include my friends Kit Brennan and P.J. Bracegirdle. Then from 2-4 PM, I'll be at Livres Babar in Pointe-Claire Village. Livres Babar has two locations -- the one in Pointe-Claire Village, and the other on Greene Avenue. We're still waiting to get the names of the other authors who'll be at the two Babar stores on May 2. The Babar stores are Montreal's only bookstores specializing in children's books... so you can understand why, over the years, I've become good friends with the Byers family, who own the stores, and with all of the stores' employees. In fact, I often run my story ideas by them!

Since the time I was a little girl, bookstores have always felt like home to me. In a bookstore, I can never be in a bad mood. There are too many books to look at, and flip through, and get hooked by... to be in a bad mood. I often tell my students that books -- both reading and writing them -- have saved my life. I know it sounds dramatic, but it's true. Books and bookstores, reading and writing are my safe place. So wherever you live in Canada or the United States, make a point of dropping by your local independent bookstore on May 2. Hey, don't forget to tell them I sent you!

 

 

 

 

  2259 Hits
Apr
08

Super Fun Morning at Marymount Academy

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Marymount Acadmey is in my neighbourhood -- in fact, I regularly jog by the building, but today was the first time I ever got to go inside! And I had a great time working with Mr. Harris's Grade 7 English class.

My day started with a hug -- from the school's vice-principal, Ms. Vourdousis. Thanks for getting my day off to a happy start, Ms. V! I don't think I've ever been hugged by a vice-principal before -- and it was fun!

Librarian Mr. Langdon kindly let us set up shop in his library. When I said I'd like the desks grouped more closely together, Mr. Harris asked for help from a student named Cody. Mr. Harris told Cody: "Show me your muscles." That was when a student named Tahleah who was sitting next to Cody piped up and said, "I've got muscles too!" I thought that was a great line, and I wrote it down so I could use it in a book. (Coincidentally, two characters in the story I am revising happen to be having a similar conversation.)

Hey, can you tell what we are doing in today's pic? The idea came from a student named Celeste, who it turns out is also one of the winners of the school's recent public speaking contest. Can you tell which word we are trying to "write"? If you need a clue, that's Mr. Harris sitting in front of us, doing the thing we are trying to demonstrate!

The students had loads of great questions for me. Henry had the most questions, and he also provided some sensitive, intelligent answers. Great work today, Henry! A student named Katherine asked a question I really liked and that I've never been asked before: "How do you get better at writing?" I told her the answer is by writing and reading A LOT!

It's nearly time for me to go and teach my own classes at Marianopolis College, but I also want to share an interesting observation from a student named Ebony. She thinks that the boys at her school are even more interested in their appearance than the girls are, only Ebony put it better: "Nowadays boys be the ones caring about their hair, shoes and clothes. And the girls are like, 'We don't care!'"

Both writing exercises I did with the group today went well. Three students didn't want me to read what they had written -- I always get excited when that happens. As I see it, it means that these students REALLY NEED TO WRITE THOSE STORIES.

So, thanks to the students for being great workshop participants; to Mr. Harris for sharing his class with me; to Mr. Langdon for sharing the library; and to Ms. Vourdousis and principal Ms. Cresta for making today's visit happen.

 

 

 

 

 

My morning started with a hug from the school's vice-principal, Ms. Vourdousis --

  2252 Hits
Apr
02

"She almost made me cry... but don't tell anyone I said that"

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The title of today's blog entry, "She almost made me cry -- but don't tell anyone I said that" comes from a comment overheard (not by me) in the hallway after the first of my two presentations this morning at Westwood Junior High School in Ste-Lazare.

I was at Westwood Junior to speak with Grade Eight students about how I got to be a writer, and to talk about my historical novel, What World Is Left, which many of the students had read over the summer. I guess it was my stories about interviewing my mom -- whose experience in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp, inspired that book -- that made the student almost cry.

I told the groups I worked with that when I was growing up, I had a difficult relationship with my mom. But everything changed when I learned the story of what she had been through during the Holocaust. So I recommended the students interview people in their own lives who sometimes drive them crazy. Once you know a person's story, you can't be angry with them any more.

We also talked about the importance of passing stories on -- and I told the story of my monkey man charm, and to the first group, the story of the prison guard who was kind to my grandfather after the Nazis imprisoned him in the Hague.

At recess, I met with the school's Battle of the Books team. They are hoping to make it to the final championship -- when they will have to answer in-depth questions about a number of books, including my novel, Straight Punch. It's a great project and you'll read more about it here since I am going to be one of the people asking questions on the final night of the contest, which takes place on April 23.

There were some special treats for me today. One was that Mrs. Quinn, a Grade Eight teacher, presented me with a thick white envelope -- inside are letters about What World Is Left, written to me by her students. I am looking forward to reading each one -- and to sharing the letters with my mom.

Another pleasure was that a student named Emily came to say hello to me after my presentation. (That's Emily in the white skirt in today's pic.) I have not seen Emily in many years, but I knew her and her family when she was a baby. And you know what, Emily? I'm pretty sure the first present I ever gave you was a BOOK!!

Now I'm going to do some writing. If I don't, how am I ever going to keep getting invited to visit cool schools?! Special thanks to librarian Mrs. Conroy (she's standing at the left in my pic) for arranging my visit today, and to teachers Mrs. Quinn and Mr. Savard for sharing your students. And to the students -- thanks for making my morning so much fun!

  2747 Hits
Mar
30

Special Day With Special Students at John Grant High School

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There are a lot of reasons why my morning was special. For one thing, I was working with special needs students at John Grant High School -- and they were terrific! Usually, I get about an hour or maybe 90 minutes with a class, but today, I had nearly three hours! That meant I could take my time and also that I had a chance to get to know the young people I was working with. These students are in the JOP stream. JOP stands for Job Orientation Program. That means they have classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, and from Wednesday to Friday, they are out doing internships in the community. I'll bet they have a lot of interesting stories about their time in the workplace!!

Another reason the visit was special is that my book Hate Mail is dedicated to David R, a student in the class. David R didn't want to be in the photograph, but he kindly agreed to be our photographer.

And another reason why the visit was special is that John Grant is located in what used to be Wagar High School -- my old high school. I haven't been back in the building for nearly forty years -- and I was surprised by how familiar things felt. Even the room numbers on the doors are still the same.

So, back to the students! We were talking about the link between writing and reading, and I asked the class if they enjoy reading. Jabbaar answered, "50-50." You know what I love about that answer? It's honest! Romy said, "I used to hate reading, but now I love it." I also noticed that Romy took amazing notes. Good job, Romy!

I told the students how hard it was for me to get my first book published. "What do you think that felt like?" I asked them. A student named Mitchell came up with a poetic answer. He said, "It must have felt like you were all alone and the walls were closing in." Mitchell, something tells me you should be writing poetry!

I ended the session with a writing exercise. Usually, I have to shush a few students at this point in my workshops, but not today! Claudio wrote a cool story about his grandmother hitting a mouse with her bare hands. And what do you think of the way William started his story: "I first heard the word 'tantrum' when I was ten years old." William, I definitely want to keep reading that story!

Thanks to the JOP students for being such focused participants; thanks to your teachers Miss Yankowsky and Miss Toffoli, for sharing you; and thanks to librarian Mrs. French for arranging my visit. I can't imagine a happier start to this week!

 

  3111 Hits
Mar
25

More Erasers: Happy Morning at Lasalle Community High School

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Hello blog readers! This seems to be eraser-week! If you read Monday's blog, you will know that during my visit to Westwood Senior, I spotted a young man trying to melt his eraser on a nearby radiator. Today, during my workshops at Lasalle Community High School, I noticed that Carissa, the student sitting next to me, was rotating her eraser and dropping it on the table in what struck me as a rhythmic way. So, because I enjoy being OBSERVANT and am CURIOUS (useful traits in an author), I asked Carissa whether she might be musical. And guess what I found out? Not only is Carissa musical, but she plays the DRUMS. Now, even though I have plenty of story ideas to keep me busy for a while, I am starting to think about writing a YA novel about a GIRL DRUMMER. So, thanks for the inspiration, Carissa!

I spent the morning working with Miss Ryan's two Grade Nine English classes. When I was talking about the importance of re-writing, and how, even after I have re-written a manuscript several times, my editor still has many suggestions for improving it, a student named Shevan had a super question. He wanted to know, "How come you can't fix your writing yourself?' I told Shevan that we writers tend to get too close to our own work -- it's kind of like trying to be objective about your own child. An editor has distance, not to mention lots of experience with other writers' work. The funny thing is that as a teacher, I do a lot of editing -- but I still need an editor to help me improve my stories.

I stayed to have lunch in the school library, where I met students on the school's Battle of the Books team (they are competing with other schools to answer questions about 14 YA novels -- and one of them is mine). That's me with the team in today's pic. (The two women at the back of the pic are librarian Miss Susan, who is wearing grey; next to her is Miss Ryan.) One of the girls on the team, Sephrah, told me that she has spent a lot of time developing an idea for her own novel. But, Sephrah says that the writing part is not going so well: "The minute I try to put it into writing, it sounds cheesy." I told Sephrah that what she feels is perfectly natural and part of the writing process. Sephrah, just get your story down -- cheesy or not. Once you have a first draft, then you can go back and make it better and better. For me, feeling dissatisfied with my writing is all just part of what goes into producing a book.

Special thanks to Miss Susan for inviting me to Lasalle Community High School, to Miss Ryan for sharing your classes, to the students for being good listeners, and to the Battle of the Books team for keeping me company at lunch -- and sharing your stories.

  2336 Hits
Mar
23

Report from Westwood High School, Senior Campus

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I'm just home from my visit today to Westwood High School Senior Campus in Hudson, a beautiful town about a forty-minute drive from downtown Montreal.

I worked with three English classes, all taught by the charming and kind Mr. Roy. It's funny how every single class has its own character. I think that's one of the reasons why, after more than 30 years in the classroom, I'm still hooked on working with teenagers! I never know what to expect and that keeps life interesting!

Here are a few highlights from today's visit. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I am hooked on interesting observations. Well, today I noticed a student named Daniel trying to melt his eraser on the radiator near his desk. I must admit that even after so many years in the classroom, that was a new one for me! Later, I noticed that a particularly bright student (I learned his name was Matt) happened to be wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. A propos, perhaps?

A student named Lilly told me that today was her 16th birthday! (That's Lilly with me in today's pic -- we are upside-down at the moment, but I'll fix that later!) Happy birthday, Lilly! She also told me she has read my novel What World Is Left FIVE TIMES! Yay, Lilly! Lilly told me she sometimes feels discouraged when she is writing. She said, "I like writing, bu when I write, I feel like I do a very bad job." That made me laugh because ... well... I often feel that way myself! I explained to Lilly that in my experience, people who are really super confident about their writing tend not to be the best writers!

I did a writing exercise with every group. Here's an excerpt from one of the best pieces that came out of the exercise. A student named Kate was remembering back to when her parents announced they were getting a divorce. Kate wrote: "I couldn't smell anything because I had a runny nose from crying." When I read that line I felt like I was in the room with Kate and her family. That's a sure sign of writing that works.

And ... one final moment that made me happy. We were talking about interviewing and I asked the students in my first class of the day, "What quality does a reporter or researcher have to demonstrate in order to get a really good interview or story?" I gave the students the hint that the answer was a verb, that it started with C and had four letters. Well, a student named Tristan came up with the answer: "Care!" he called out.

So that's my word for the day: care. If you care about stories; if you care about writing and reading -- you're on the way to becoming a writer. Thanks to Mr. Roy for inviting me to Westwood Senior, and to librarian Ute Wilkinson for arranging today's visit. And thanks to the students for being so much fun!

 

  3054 Hits
Feb
23

Pajama Day at Kuper Academy

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If you're wondering why some of the kids in today's pic are wearing pajamas, it's because it was Pajama Day at Kuper Academy. I was there to pay my third of three visits to the school. This morning, I visited another one of Miss Machaca's Grade Eight classes -- and they were wonderful.

Because I spoke a little about how important it is for authors to make observations (so that they include interesting details in their stories), I asked some questions about the pajamas the students were wearing. Several were dressed in onesies -- can you figure out my question? I wanted to know how they manage to go to the bathroom! (Admit it! You were wondering about that, too!) Imagine trying to go to the bathroom when you are wearing a onesie -- that would be a good scene to include in a story!

When we were discussing body language, I asked students to have a look at how people were holding their pens. A student named Alex observed that one of his classmates was ready to write. "Pen at the ready!" said Alex. I liked Alex's use of language -- "Pen at the ready!" sounds lively and fun, and it makes me think that Alex is the poetic type.

We talked a little about my historical novel, What World Is Left, and I told the students how the book is based on my mom's wartime experience. My mom lived in Amsterdam, but after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, she and her family were sent to a concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. A student named Wiske stayed to talk to me after class. Wiske moved from the Netherlands to Canada six months ago. We spoke about Anne Frank -- which made me realize I had forgotten to tell this morning's class that my mom and Anne Frank attended the same high school for Jewish students in Amsterdam. If Anne Frank was alive today, she would be my mom's age -- 85.

On my way out today, I stopped at the library to thank the librarian, Mrs. Mohammed, for inviting me to Kuper -- I really had a great time. The kids were super -- focused, interested, and perfectly behaved. I also had a chance to meet Mrs. Salette, the head of school. It is always fun for me to meet the administrators who run the schools I visit. And then I had a happy surprise. Mrs. Salette's son, Rob, is the school's director of admissions. And guess what? I taught Rob at Marianopolis!

Here's to interesting observations, turning trouble into stories ... and happy surprises! Thanks to all the students I worked with at Kuper. You guys were a pleasure!

 

 

 

 

 

 

  2684 Hits
Feb
18

Visit to Lauren Hill Academy, Another School that's Close to My Heart

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If you have read my YA novel, 121 Express, you will remember Mr. Adams. What you may not know is that the fictional Mr. Adams is based on a wonderful real-life teacher named Mr. Adams, who is now the head of the English Department at Lauren Hill Academy, Junior Campus, here in Montreal.

I met Mr. Adams several years ago, when I worked with him and his students on a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project, which ended up inspiring 121 Express. Which meant that I got to spend a lot of time at Lauren Hill's Junior Campus.

So you will understand why I was so pleased to be invited back there this morning! I am just home from doing three workshops at the school -- and the first one was for TEACHERS! Basically, I did the same thing with the teachers that I did later with their students -- shared my writing tips, and got them WRITING!

Afterwards, I worked with two large groups of students -- I think I probably spoke to over 200 students in all... and they were great. It's not easy for participants in such large groups to stay focused, but these kids were just about perfect.

I talked about the important link between our memories and the stories we need to write. During a short writing exercise, a student named Azur asked, "Can we keep it in the present?" I thought this was a sophisticated question and I told Azur, yes, absolutely, use the present. I find that when I am writing about memories, the present tense adds immediacy -- something that Azur was discovering on her own. A student named Kiki wrote about a difficult memory involving violence. Kiki gave me permission to share a few lines here: "Not again. Not another bruise. Not another day." Those are powerful words, Kiki, and they make me want to keep reading your story!

When he was introducing me to the second group, Mr. Adams said, "Writing is a life skill -- not just a school skill." I thought that was so smart and well-put that I had to write it down in my notes. See, writers are ALWAYS TAKING NOTES, even during our own presentations!

I showed the students (and the teachers) my book of "pages" -- the journal I write in every morning. After I was done with my last presentation, a student named Matthew asked, "May I read the book you write in every morning?" I had a quick answer for Matthew: "NO!"

I also got to meet the school's vice-principal. And it turns out that she has read one of my books. Plus, she has the best name for a vice-principal: MS. EXCELLENT. Ms. Excellent, you are definitely going into one of my future books!

A big shout-out to my friends at Lauren Hill Academy, Junior Campus -- thanks for being a great audience, thanks to Mr. Adams for the invite, to the other English teachers for coming to the teachers' workshops, and to Ms. Excellent for living up to her name!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  2953 Hits
Feb
16

Visit to Riverdale, A School Close to My Heart...

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I'm just home from Riverdale High School -- a school that's close to my heart. That's because my last book, Hate Mail, was written with the help of a wonderful group of students at Riverdale and their teacher Karen Scott. The book grew out of an amazing Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Libres comme l'art.

Today, I did writing workshops with two of Miss Blake's English classes and I must say they were both lively crews. But I also had a few visitors from Miss Scott's group. It was great to see you guys!

In today's pic, I am working with the class I saw this morning. One of the students in the pic is named Briyaunah -- when I was teaching the writing rule (I don't usually like to teach rules, but this is my one exception) SHOW; DON'T TELL, I explained how there's a semi-colon... which was when Briyaunah drew a semi-colon in the air and smiled at me. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I am crazy about body language -- well, Briyaunah's drawing that semi-colon was very cool body language and it showed me that a) she was paying attention and b) she knows what a semi-colon is!

When we talked about revising, a student named Zac said, "I only hand in first drafts." When I asked Zac how that is working out for him, he admitted, "I might be failing English." Luckily, before I finished my session, I got Zac to solemnly promise that he will now revise and re-do his work before handing it in. Let me know if that helps pick up your English average, Zac!

THe group I worked with this afternoon was even LIVELIER -- by that I mean it was a bit of a challenge to get them to focus. But hey, they did -- and they turned out to be wonderful, too. Also, they had a ton of questions for me, which made my day more fun and interesting. My favourite question came from a guy named Jack who, when I told them that I write every single day, asked, "Doesn't writing get boring?" I responded by asking Jack a question: "Does thinking ever get boring?" and he said, "No, I like to think"... so I explained that for me, writing IS thinking.

Anyway, it's nearly time for me to head to Marianopolis to teach my own Writing for Children class. But first I need to say a special thanks to Mrs. Strano, the librarian at Riverdale, for the invite, and for making me the best lunch EVER. Thanks to Miss Blake's classes for your energy, and to Miss Scott's former students for coming to say hi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  2473 Hits
Feb
10

Highlights of Today's Visit to Kuper Academy

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I'm just back from my second of three visits this month to Kuper Academy in Kirkland. This afternoon, I worked with three Grade Eight classes -- and there were many interesting and fun moments.

I'll begin with an interesting moment: a student named Mathew told me his grandfather, who is German and whom Mathew calls "Opa" (the same name I used to call my Dutch grandfather) helped Jews in hiding during the Holocaust by bringing them food. Luckily for Mathew, his opa is still alive... so I told Mathew he needs to hang out with him and learn his stories! As I pointed out, sometimes older people are more comfortable sharing their pasts with their grandchildren than with their own kids. So get to work, Mathew!

I got Ms. Machaca's class to write about the book each of them most wants to read. Interestingly, three students wrote about soccer. Alexander imagined a story that combined soccer and aliens; Efren was interested in a story about a kidnapped soccer player; and Amrit had a story idea about a poor Brazilian kid who becomes a soccer star.

Another fun moment happened when I was advising the students that in order to get a secret, they might try giving a secret -- in other words, tell one of their own. A student named Brandon asked, "Does it work if you make it up?" My immediate answer was no -- because I think that if we want to have honest, deep conversation with someone, we need to be honest ourselves. But then I gave Brandon's question a little more thought and I decided to give him credit for even coming up with it -- since his question is really about using imagination. In a way, Brandon, all fiction writers are liars -- and now the concept gets even more complicated -- what we aim to do in our fiction is get at essential human truths!

I ended the afternoon with Miss Caughy's class. (Today's pic was taken in Miss Caughy's classroom.) You know how I love making observations and asking questions? Well, I noticed there seemed to be interesting students in the back corners and near the door in Miss Caughy's classroom ... so I asked her about it. Guess what I found out? That Miss Caughy uses a system called "four corners." Ah ha... let's just say that that's where Miss Caughy puts the students who function best with a little extra space. You know what I'm thinking? That "Four Corners" would make a great book title! Hey, maybe one of you guys in Miss Caughy's four corners should write it!

I'll be back to do one last class at Kuper on Monday, Feb. 23. If any of the students I've met want to show me your writing, I could meet you in the library at lunch and we could talk stories. Let Miss Mohammed know if that sounds like a plan.

 

 

 

 

 

  3012 Hits
Feb
05

Happy Day at Kuper Academy

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You'd probably expect a writer who just got home from doing FIVE sessions with students at Kuper Academy would be ready for a nap, but hey, I'm full of energy. I think that's because instead of tiring me out, the kids I worked with today gave me the best kind of buzz!

Okay, so you're wondering about today's pics. In the first one, I am in the library with a student named Justin. Justin had heard me speak in Miss Machaca's class, where I mentioned that writers need to be careful observers of life around them. When I finished up in Miss Machaca's classroom, I was chatting with another of her students, when I noticed that Justin was well... waiting around. So I asked him, "Do you have a question for me?" -- and he answered, "No, I'm just following one of your tips!" That was when I figured out Justin was OBSERVING! (Nothing makes a visiting author happier than knowing young writers are following her advice!!)

There is lots more I can tell you about today's visit, but I'm going to give you a few highlights. If you are one of my regular blog readers, you'll know that I have started work on a new project involving school rules. That's why I took the second pic. It's the plastic basket you find on every teacher's desk at Kuper. When students come in, they deposit their cellphones in the basket. Clever idea, no? Maybe I should get them to try it at Marianopolis College!! Anyway, it's an interesting approach to the cellphone-in-the-classroom problem... and maybe I can find a way to work it into my new story. See? That's what we writers do... spend our days collecting material, the way a bird collects stuff to build a nest.

A happy moment from my day: I was telling the students about my opa, who inspired the character of the father in my historical novel What World Is Left. I explained that during the Holocaust, my Opa had to compromise his own priniciples in order to protect his family. Then I told the class, "May the rest of us never find ourselves in a similar situation." At just that moment, I happened to look at a student named Tyus and Tyus gave me a small nod. But that nod (you may know I have an obsession with body language) showed me that Tyus is smart and has a big heart -- and that he understood exactly what I meant.

I also collect possible names for future characters. So you can imagine my pleasure when a student told me her name is Love. And she has three sisters named Faith, Hope and Peace. Love, if you're reading this, I think you need to write a story about you four sisters and whether you live up to your names. I am wondering for instance ... does a girl named Peace ever get into a fight?

Another observation: I met a student named Melina who has two pencilcases. One is for pens and pencils; the other is for other stuff like her erasers and calculator. As a writer, I am always on the hunt for interesting details ... that double pencilcase situation might make it into my bird's nest, too!

And you can imagine that I was impressed by a student named Jack, whom when I told his class that I have been writing three pages in a journal every day for 20 years (except for one day when I had a terrible flu), Jack raised his hand and said, "That means you wrote, 219,897 pages!" And Jack didn't even use his calculator to figure that one out.

I'll be doing two more visits to Kuper this month. Watch the blog for more reports.

Special thanks to teachers Mr. Welik, Miss Machaca, and Mr. D, for sharing their classes with me; to librarian Mrs. Mohammed for inviting me back to Kuper; and to my new pal, Mrs. Katz, for the excellent company during my break!

 

 

 

 

 

  3220 Hits
Feb
04

Further Adventures of the Lunch Bunch

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If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that early in 2015, I paid four visits to St. Thomas High School. I was there to talk about writing and to inspire the students, but let's just they inspired me, too!

At the time, I told the students about my latest book idea (it had to do with school rules), and I asked students who had some insights into how school rules work to drop by at their lunchtime to chat with me. Which was how the lunch bunch was born.

It also explains why today, a snowy day in Montreal -- the kind of day when the roads are slick -- I drove out to St. Thomas to meet with the lunch bunch!I tested out the first chapters of my new project on them. Overall, I'd say the verdict was a thumbs up, though they had lots of good comments and useful suggestions for me. For instance, they like the word "revolt" more than "mutiny," and they think one of the characters I am writing about -- who happens to be gay -- would be more reluctant about going along with his peers' macho behavior.

Special thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye for rounding up the lunch bunch, and to the lunch bunch for your terrific input. My favourite part of the visit? When a couple of students asked, "Are you coming back to read us more?" The answer, by the way, is YES! Aren't I a lucky writer to have these bright young people to test my story out on?

 

 

 

 

 

  2086 Hits
Feb
04

Further Adventures of the Lunch Bunch

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If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that early in 2015, I paid four visits to St. Thomas High School. I was there to talk about writing and to inspire the students, but let's just they inspired me, too!

At the time, I told the students about my latest book idea (it had to do with school rules), and I asked students who had some insights into how school rules work to drop by at their lunchtime to chat with me. Which was how the lunch bunch was born.

It also explains why today, a snowy day in Montreal -- the kind of day when the roads are slick -- I drove out to St. Thomas to meet with the lunch bunch!I tested out the first chapters of my new project on them. Overall, I'd say the verdict was a thumbs up, though they had lots of good comments and useful suggestions for me. For instance, they like the word "revolt" more than "mutiny," and they think one of the characters I am writing about -- who happens to be gay -- would be more reluctant about going along with his peers' macho behavior.

Special thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye for rounding up the lunch bunch, and to the lunch bunch for your terrific input. My favourite part of the visit? When a couple of students asked, "Are you coming back to read us more?" The answer, by the way, is YES! Aren't I a lucky writer to have these bright young people to test my story out on?

 

 

 

 

 

  1865 Hits
Feb
04

Further Adventures of the Lunch Bunch

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If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that early in 2015, I paid four visits to St. Thomas High School. I was there to talk about writing and to inspire the students, but let's just say they inspired me, too!

At the time, I told the students about my latest book idea (it had to do with school rules), and I asked students who had some insights into how school rules work to drop by at their lunchtime to chat with me. Which was how the lunch bunch was born.

It also explains why today, a snowy day in Montreal -- the kind of day when the roads are slick -- I drove out to St. Thomas to meet with the lunch bunch!I tested out the first chapters of my new project on them. Overall, I'd say the verdict was a thumbs up, though they had lots of good comments and useful suggestions for me. For instance, they like the word "revolt" more than "mutiny," and they think one of the characters I am writing about -- who happens to be gay -- would be more reluctant about going along with his peers' macho behavior.

Special thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye for rounding up the lunch bunch, and to the lunch bunch for your terrific input. My favourite part of the visit? When a couple of students asked, "Are you coming back to read us more?" The answer, by the way, is YES! Aren't I a lucky writer to have these bright young people to test my story out on?

 

 

 

 

 

  2294 Hits
Jan
13

Hard to Say Good-Bye to the Students at St. Thomas High School

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-2_20150113-202036_1.JPG  I'm just home from the last of my four writing workshops at St. Thomas High School -- and it was hard to say good-bye. The students did some amazing work and I have to admit they provided a ton of inspiration and input for the manuscript I am hoping to start this week. So, instead of saying good-bye, I asked them whether, once I've produced a few chapters of the new project, I could come back to the library some lunch time and test it out on them. I got the distinct impression my plan might work! YAY!

Because this was my second session with the students I worked with today, there was time for a writing exercise. If you know me, or if you read this blog, you will know that I am really interested in the connection between memory and writing. That's why I asked the students to explore a memory from when they were either five or ten years old. Many of them produced powerful pieces. One that stood out for me was Stephanie's memory of the death of her guinea pig Snoopy. Her piece was written in the present tense and she included the simple, but moving line, "I pet him one last time." When we were chatting afterwards, Stephanie told me that after Snoopy's death, she could not go into the computer room where his cage used to be. I told her that that was a detail she should definitely include as she continues to work on her piece.

Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you about today's pic! That's a drawing I spotted on a student named Cynthia's hand. Pretty amazing, don't you think? Cynthia told me she did the drawing during cooking class, just before English. Cynthia is one of the students who's been meeting up for lunch with me at the school library -- Cynthia, you've been a great inspiration this week. And I think you're an amazing artist too. Do you draw on paper and canvas also, or just on hands? ;) Anyway, I hope you'll come back for lunch in a few weeks when I've written some chapters to share with you guys.

I also told the students a few stories today -- one about the Holocaust, one about a talking bird. I explained how for me, it's as if all I have to do is cup my hands (today's theme seems to be HANDS!!) and stories come to me. I think if we are interested in stories and in people and in things, then stories come to us. It's up to writers -- young ones like the ones I've been working with at St. Thomas, and older ones like me -- to share those stories.

Speaking os sharing, special thanks to the teachers for sharing their students, and birthday wishes to Mr. Katz (who helped me refine one of today's exercises), and a shout-out to Mrs. Pye, the librarian at St. Thomas, for having me back and for sharing her library with all of us.

 

 

 

  2539 Hits
Jan
12

"Write Like A Lot"

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So don't you like the title of today's blog entry, "Write like a lot"? It's a direct quote from one of the ninth grade students I worked with this morning at St. Thomas HIgh School in Poointe-Claire. This was my third of four days of writing workshops at the school, and the quote comes from Philippe in response to my question, "What do you think my first tip for you guys is?" Philippe was right -- my first tip is always to tell aspiring writers to WRITE, but I liked how Philippe put it -- and that's because he sounds like a teenager talking and not a fifty-four-year-old writer. And since I write for teens, I need to hear teenage voices in my head.

That's me at the left in today's pic. I'm with a student named Averie (she had some great ideas to share about school rules -- the topic of my upcoming book project). Next to Averie is the lovely Miss Murphy, next to her is the lovely librarian Mrs. Pye, and next to Mrs. Pye, is Matthew.

Miss Murphy and I have met before, but today, I had a chance to learn a little more about her teaching methods. It turns out she does meditation exercises with her students. Not only am I interested in incorporating some of those exercises in my own classroom, but it occurred to me that Miss Murphy would make a cool teacher to include in my new story. So thanks, Miss Murphy, for the inspiration!

I was telling the students how writers need to be curious -- and I have an example of how curiosity leads to interesting discoveries. I noticed a student named Madison was wearing a T-shirt with a chihuahua on it, so I asked her whether she has a chihuahua. Madison told me she has a Jack Russell Terrier (they look a little like chihuahuas). She also told me the T-shirt was a birthday present from her step-mom, and that her birthday was yesterday. See how much info I found out all my asking one small question!

At lunch, a lively group of students came to keep me company while I ate my egg salad sandwich. William, whom I had met last week, let me have a look at the horror story he's been writing. He's got some great names for his characters: Raith, Myst and Curce. He's also good at creating a creepy atmosphere. Averie (to my right in today's pic) took out her cellphone to show me a poem she's been working on. I made a couple of suggestions for tightening up the language, and I asked her permission to quote my favourite line: "All I know is that I crave you more than before." Beautiful work, Averie!

I experimented this afternoon with a new writing exercise (I invented it during my RUN this morning) -- I asked Mr. Katz's class to write about their relationship with writing by personifying writing. I got some interesting results. Hailie wrote: "She's the type of friend that I can rely on, yet I only seem to visit her when I'm bored." Joseph wrote: "I feel llike writing wants to be with me, but I don't want to be with writing."

Aaahh, the pleasure of reading creative, honest stuff. On days like this, I can't help thinking I have the best job in all the world! See you tomorrow, St. Thomas High!

 

 

  2764 Hits
Jan
08

Lache pas la patate!

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If you're wondering why the title of today's blog entry "Lache pas la patate" is in French, it's because I spent today in Beauport, near Quebec City, working with francophone students at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie -- and I had a great time.

It was my third visit to the school, and I worked with four grade nine classes who are studying English as a Second Language. I warned them that sometimes I talk pretty quickly and to slow me down if they had trouble keeping up, but no one had to rein me in -- the way you need to do when you are riding a horse who gallops when you're in the mood for a relaxing ride!

I tried to tell the students everything I know about writing, and I also gave them a writing exercise to help them figure out if there's a story in their pasts that is calling out to be written!

I also told the students how I got into publishing books, and how I faced many obstacles along the way. I told them my advice to never give up, and then I said to their teacher, Mr. Lord, "That's lache pas in French, right?" and Mr. Lord said, "It's lache pas la patate." Which made me laugh since that basically translates into don't leave the potato. In fact, I think from now on, I will tell all the students I meet "lache pas la patate"!

We discussed how trouble is the fuel that helps move a story forward. William, a student who is into video games, explained to me that even the simplest video game has trouble in it. Simon added, "A video game is like a story." Afterwards, Simon and his friend Charles showed me a book they wrote together. Their book is called "Hashima Island" and though I only had time for a quick look, I found it funny. One of my favourite parts were the biographies at the end. Here's my favourite line from Charles's biography: "Before working with Simon, Charles wrote a book that wasn't very successful." As I told the students, it's great when you can add humour to your stories!

During my talks today, I also mentioned that though writers probably need to know what trouble FEELS LIKE, it's wise to STAY OUT OF TROUBLE. Of course, when you are in Grade Nine, trouble sometimes knocks on your door! So I suggested next time trouble comes knocking, they should say, "I can't come out now. I'm busy writing my book!"

Anyway, I'm writing this blog entry from the train -- I'm headed home to Montreal. Thanks to the Grade Nine ESL students at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie. You were lively and fun, and I really liked your writing. I'm impressed that you can express yourselves so well in a second language. And thanks to your teachers, Mr. Lord and Miss Delgado (that's Miss Delgao in the left corner of today's pic), for arranging my visit. I already miss you guys!

 

 

  3054 Hits
Jan
07

Teaching ... and Learning at St. Thomas High School

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I'm very proud of today's pic. That's because it's taken at lunch time during my second of four visits this month to St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. When I visit schools, I try to stick around at lunch in case students want to come OF THEIR OWN VOLITION (!!!) and chat with me about writing. Usually, I get a handful of keen young writers, but today I had quite a crowd! I think it was because I had mentioned to the three classes I worked with this morning that I am beginning to brainstorm for my next book project which is going to involve school rules and what it's like to be a boy beginning to get interested in girls. So I told the students if they wanted to discuss any of this stuff with me, they should drop by -- and let's just say it was quite a discussion!

I went to St. Thomas today to teach about writing, but I think I learned as much from the students as they learned from me! Thanks to the lunch bunch, for turning up, and for sharing your stories. I hope that in a small way, you learned some more about what I do -- keep my feelers out for interesting issues in the lives of today's teens, ask questions to the experts (meaning you guys!), and take a ton of notes.

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday and Tuesday next week. By then, I hope to have a story outline to show you. And I hope you'll be writing stories for me too... so I can provide some feedback. Sometimes, being a writer feels a little lonely, but not today. Today being a writer feels like it's about finding inspiration and energy in connecting with others. Thanks for that, you guys!

  1995 Hits
Jan
07

Teaching ... and Learning at St. Thomas High School

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-5_20150107-184130_1.JPG

I'm very proud of today's pic. That's because it's taken at lunch time during my second of four visits this month to St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. When I visit schools, I try to stick around at lunch in case students want to come OF THEIR OWN VOLITION (!!!) and chat with me about writing. Usually, I get a handful of keen young writers, but today I had quite a crowd! I think it was because I had mentioned to the three classes I worked with this morning that I am beginning to brainstorm for my next book project which is going to involve school rules and what it's like to be a boy beginning to get interested in girls. So I told the students if they wanted to discuss any of this stuff with me, they should drop by -- and let's just say it was quite a discussion!

I went to St. Thomas today to teach about writing, but I think I learned as much from the students as they learned from me! Thanks to the lunch bunch, for turning up, and for sharing your stories. I hope that in a small way, you learned some more about what I do -- keep my feelers out for interesting issues in the lives of today's teens, ask questions to the experts (meaning you guys!), and take a ton of notes.

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday and Tuesday next week. By then, I hope to have a story outline to show you. And I hope you'll be writing stories for me too... so I can provide some feedback. Sometimes, being a writer feels a little lonely, but not today. Today being a writer feels like it's about finding inspiration and energy in connecting with others. Thanks for that, you guys!

  2093 Hits
Jan
07

Teaching ... and Learning at St. Thomas High School

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-5_20150107-184130_1.JPG

I'm very proud of today's pic. That's because it's taken at lunch time during my second of four visits this month to St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. When I visit schools, I try to stick around at lunch in case students want to come OF THEIR OWN VOLITION (!!!) and chat with me about writing. Usually, I get a handful of keen young writers, but today I had quite a crowd! I think it was because I had mentioned to the three classes I worked with this morning that I am beginning to brainstorm for my next book project which is going to involve school rules and what it's like to be a boy beginning to get interested in girls. So I told the students if they wanted to discuss any of this stuff with me, they should drop by -- and let's just say it was quite a discussion!

I went to St. Thomas today to teach about writing, but I think I learned as much from the students as they learned from me! Thanks to the lunch bunch, for turning up, and for sharing your stories. I hope that in a small way, you learned some more about what I do -- keep my feelers out for interesting issues in the lives of today's teens, ask questions to the experts (meaning you guys!), and take a ton of notes.

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday and Tuesday next week. By then, I hope to have a story outline to show you. And I hope you'll be writing stories for me too... so I can provide some feedback. Sometimes, being a writer feels a little lonely, but not today. Today being a writer feels like it's about finding inspiration and energy in connecting with others. Thanks for that, you guys!

  1877 Hits
Jan
07

Teaching ... and Learning at St. Thomas High School

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-5_20150107-184130_1.JPG

I'm very proud of today's pic. That's because it's taken at lunch time during my second of four visits this month to St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. When I visit schools, I try to stick around at lunch in case students want to come OF THEIR OWN VOLITION (!!!) and chat with me about writing. Usually, I get a handful of keen young writers, but today I had quite a crowd! I think it was because I had mentioned to the three classes I worked with this morning that I am beginning to brainstorm for my next book project which is going to involve school rules and what it's like to be a boy beginning to get interested in girls. So I told the students if they wanted to discuss any of this stuff with me, they should drop by -- and let's just say it was quite a discussion!

I went to St. Thomas today to teach about writing, but I think I learned as much from the students as they learned from me! Thanks to the lunch bunch for turning up, and for sharing your stories. I hope that in a small way, you learned some more about what I do -- keep my feelers out for interesting issues in the lives of today's teens, ask questions to the experts (meaning you guys!), and take a ton of notes.

I'll be back at St. Thomas on Monday and Tuesday next week. By then, I hope to have a story outline to show you. And I hope you'll be writing stories for me too... so I can provide some feedback. Sometimes, being a writer feels a little lonely, but not today. Today being a writer feels like it's about finding inspiration and energy in connecting with others. Thanks for that, you guys!

  2381 Hits
Jan
06

St. Thomas High: My School-Away-from-School

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I'm sure you've heard of a home-awy-from-home -- a place you feel so comfortable it feels like home. But I think I might have just invented the term "school-away-from-school." That's how I feel about St. Thomas High School, where I've done author visits for several years now. And this year, I'm doing four days of writing workshops with Grade Nine students at the school.

In today's pic, I'm standing next to Katarina. I met with four classes today, and Katarina was in my second group. When I told her class that reading and writing have both saved my life -- that they've always helped me get through my hardest times -- Katarina caught my eye, and I knew she was what Lucy Maud Montgomery would call "a kindred spirit." As Katarina told me afterwards, "Reading helps keep me calm. The people in my house are sometimes hot-tempered." You'll notice that Katarina is wearing a sweatshirt with a horse on it -- which led me to ask if was into horses, which led to my discovery that Katarina has two horses! See what happens when you're snoopy like me!!

I'll get to meet with the grades nines I'm working with twice -- today was mostly introductory material... I told the students how I got into writing and shared my favourite writing tips. In our next sessions, I'll get more into the nitty-gritty and give the students some writing exercises.

If you've been to one of my writing workshops, you'll know I have a special fondness for TROUBLE which I believe helps to fuel stories. So I laughed when a student named Michael called out, "Trouble happens to be my middle name." Don't you think that would make a great book title?

One of my favourite questions today came from a student named Maathangi. She asked, "As a writer, shouldn't you not stick to routine and isn't it better to write when you feel spontaneous?" I liked the romantic sentiment behind the question, but as I told Maathangi, I don't think there's much that's romantic about writing. If I only wrote when I felt spontaneous, I'm afraid I wouldn't get much done! I think discipline has a lot to do with writing. The trick for me is to write when I don't feel like writing!!

I'll be sticking around in the library at St. Thomas for lunch on my workshop days -- that way I'll have time to work one-on-one with students who are especially keen. Today, I had four delightful visitors. Christian has a great idea for a modern re-telling of a popular kids' story. Here's how Christian described himself to me: "I'm a guy who can turn a small story into something giant." Christopher, I say go for it -- and I love your idea. William is writing a fantasy with an unlikeable protagonist. I told William that's a great idea, too, but I suggested that by the end of his manuscript, readers should change their minds about the protagonist -- that once we know his story, we should like him more. Teague is a member of the Glenmore Curling Club and he'll be competing this spring in the Jeux du Québec -- I suggested he take notes for a book about teens and curling. As I told Teague, I've never seen a book on the topic and I have a feeling it would catch the interest of young readers (and older editors!). And Lauren is writing short stories about monsters. She wanted some tips for beginning her stories and I suggested she start some place dramatic, or with exciting dialogue, or with a funny incident.

You might think I'd be tired after four sessions today, but instead I'm feeling energized and inspired. That's what happens when I get to work with bright, open young people. Thanks you guys for being a great audience, and to your teachers, Mr. Cloney, Miss Ditchburn, and Mrs. Puliatti, for sharing you with me today. And special thanks to librarian Mrs. Pye, who over all these years, has become my friend. Long live stories and books!!

 

  2227 Hits
Dec
16

Meet My Friend: Author Karen Spafford-Fitz

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-3.JPG That's YA author Karen Spafford-Fitz smiling at you in today's pic. I just finished reading Karen's novel Dog Walker (Orca) and I liked it so much, I arranged a Skype interview so you could meet Karen too. (If you're looking for me, I'm in the bottom right corner snapping her pic on my iPhone!)

Karen was born near Kingston, Ont., but she now lives and writes in Edmonton, Alberta. Over the last couple of years, we've become Facebook friends -- mostly because we keep surprising ourselves with how much we have in common: we both write; Karen used to teach (I still do); we both run (and do errands on our runs); and we both love eavesdropping and coffee.

Dog Walker is about an attitude-y guy named Turk who comes up with a great idea to earn extra money: he starts a dog-walking business. But he's got an ulterior motive -- he and his friends want to meet girls. It turns out dog-walking is a great way to do that! I asked Karen how she got the idea for the book. And of course, her answer came in the form of another story (that's what happens when you interview an author!!). Here's what Karen told me: "In 1992, when my husband Ken and I got our first dog together, a German shepherd puppy, we noticed how people were constantly stopping us to admire the puppy. Afterwards, Ken asked me, 'Did you notice that most of the people who stopped us were female? Why didn't I think of that when I was a teenage boy?' That stayed with me." Fun, no?

I also asked Karen if she had some writing tips to share with you, dear blog readers -- and lucky for you, she did! "Besides read read read and revise revise revise, I tell students I work with when I do writing workshops to eavesdrop in order to pick up juicy tidbits that will help them build a better story. You should also inflict lots of problems on your characters. It's so much fun!"

Karen is also the author of Vanish -- I need to read that book next. She is completing a manuscript about the restorative justice process and though she doesn't want to say too much about that work-in-progress, she will say there's running in it.

Now if only Karen lived a little closer -- then we could go for a run, have a coffee, do errands and talk writing all at the same time. Aren't you glad you met her? I know I am!

 

 

 

  2377 Hits
Dec
04

"How do I make my paragraphs bigger?" -- Fun Visit to Rosemere High

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That's me in today's pic with some of the students I worked with this morning at Rosemere High School. It was a special visit organized by my friend, English teacher Abigail Lawrence. My workshop was open to any students in grades nine, ten and eveln who love writing. So let's jsut say it was a pretty easy crowd to work with!

There were about 25 students in the workshop - some of them had special permission to miss math because they were with me. And I had nearly three hours with them, which was great because I got to do it all: talk about how writing works for me and where I get my story ideas, read a little, and give some writing exercises as well as feedback on the students' work. I warned the group that my writing exercises are a little weird -- for instance they start without pens and pencils. So I was super pleased when a student named Sahira announced, "It worked!"

Some of the students shared their work with me -- and I got to read some interesting stuff. Anne remembered being a kid and building "a fort made of coats and chairs." Good use of detail, Anne! And a student named Rosalie wrote about a terrible haunting memory in which she found her cat drowned in her family's backyard pool. That could not have been an easy thing to write about, Rosalie, but as I was telling you guys this morning, it takes courage to be a writer!

I stuck around at lunch to answer individual questions and look at more writing. Rafael had a a lot of smart questions for me. But my favourite is the one I used as the title for today's blog entry: "How do I make my paragraphs larger?" I must say that question gave me a good laugh! I told Rafael not to worry about making his paragraphs LARGER; he needs to concentrate on making his paragraphs BETTER. I suggested he could add interesting details or examples.

Rafael also wanted to know if I had advice to help him "explain main ideas better." I told him that for me, writing is a way of thinking things through. So I think Rafael could clarify his main ideas by writing out every single thing he thinks about then idea, then re-reading it all to select what is most important, and trim back the rest.

I really had a fun visit at Rosemere High. Thanks, Miss Lawrence, for getting things organized and for doing every writing exercise with your students. And hey, students, if I touched any of your papers, I hope you disinfected them... I don't want you to catch my cold. Happy writing, you guys. Like I told you, it's hard work, sometimes frustrating, but hey, there's nothing like it. And if it weren't for my writing, I'd never have gotten to meet all of you today!

 

 

 

 

  2519 Hits
Dec
01

Quebec Roots 2015: Outreach High School

b2ap3_thumbnail_photo-2.JPG You might get the impression from today's pic that I spent this morning in someone's livingroom -- someone who likes to read! Actually I was with photographer Thomas Kneubuhler, doing a class visit at Outreach High School, an alternative school here in NDG. Thomas (he's not in the pic since he was behind the camera) and I were at Outreach because we're helping the grade eleven class produce a chapter for the 2015 edition of Quebec Roots, a publication that is part of a Blue Mteropolis Literary Foundation project. Ten classes from around the province will each contribute a chapter to the book -- students will get to tell their stories through words and images.

I started the day off by talking a little about my writing process, but mostly, I wanted the students to get started on some writing of their own. We discussed one of my favourite subjects: TROUBLE, and how, without trouble in it, a story doesn't really go anywhere. Then later, when Thomas was outside with the students, helping them shoot photographs, I got to work one-on-one with some of the students on their writing.

And I got some beautiful stuff -- so I asked the students' permission to share a little of it here today. In a powerful piece, a student named Marco recalled being bullied when he was in grade seven. I loved how Marco ended his story with the line: "If I see him [the bully] now, I would only say one word to him: 'Why?'" A student named Karina described what it was like to battle against an alcohol problem. I was very moved by her words, especially when she wrote, "In a weird way, I am grateful for all of it." Karina wrote about how she dreams of becoming a social worker. I have a hunch she'll do a great job! Another student named Aviva took a super creative approach by writing a counting song about cutting. I don't think I'll ever forget the opening line: "Cut one: I'm not done."

I know the students had a blast taking photos. I hope they learned a little about writing, too. The writing they did today really touched me -- and I'm sure it'll touch the readers of their chapter. Special thanks to their teacher, Annelise Ogle (that's her in the stripes in today's pic, with her daughter on her lap.) Today is one of those days where I can't help feeling that telling our stories matters more than anything else. Thanks also to Mrs. Ogle's students for your hard work. I look forward to reading more of your stories!

  2323 Hits
Nov
07

"Always Keep Hope" -

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The title of today's blog entry "Always keep hope" comes from my mom. That's her in today's pc, and that's my dad watching her. And on the computer screen you can see 150 students from Dumas Intermediate School in Dumas, Texas. I was invited to do a Skype visit with two groups of students from Dumas -- and because I was speaking about my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mother's real-life experience in a Nazi concentration camp, it made sense for me to do the Skypes from my parents' house so that the students could meet my mom.

It's hard -- even for a writer -- to find words to tell you about what happened this morning. My mom is 85, a little frail, and far less connected to people than she used to be. Sometimes, she has trouble finding words for her sentences, but today, well, she was amazing. I did most of the talking (about writing in general, about how I did the research for What World Is Left), but I think it's safe to say that my mom stole the show!

The students deserve credit, too. Not only did they listen attentively, but they had prepared excellent, sensitive questions. A young man named Fabian asked my mom, "Who or what did you miss most?" My first thought was that I should have thought of asking that question back in 2007 when I was researching the book! My mom paused for a moment before answering Fabian's question and I could feel her going back in time. She did not miss anyone or anything when she was in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. "You only could think of survival," she told Fabian.

Joaquim wanted to know what my mom ate for breakfast when she was imprisoned at Theresienstadt. "It's a very short story," my mom answered -- displaying her trademark sense of humor (I told the students that for me, my mom's humour is a sign of her resilience and courage.) Then she went on to explain that breakfast was a cup of fake coffee and two slices of dark bread.

Even the school's prinicpal, Mr. Rhodes, had a question for my mom. "I hope it won't be too difficult" she said, joking again. Mr. Rhodes wanted to know how the Holocaust affected my mom's view of God. "Did you ever feel that God had forgotten you?' he asked. I have to tell you that the question kind of took my breath away -- it's another question I've never asked my mom. Her answer? "God must have tried to stop it, but He didn't succeed."

I am feeling very privileged that I got to "travel" to Dumas today, and that I got to bring my parents along, too. Just as the title of today's blog entry comes from my mom, I'm also going to give her the last word. Before we shut down Skype, I asked my mom to say good-bye to the students, she told them, "Thanks. It made me feel hopeful."

Thanks to the Grade Six classes at Dumas Intermediate School, to your teachers who prepared you so well, to Mr. Rhodes, and Mrs. Craigmiles for arranging today's visit.

 

  2103 Hits
Nov
07

"Always Keep Hope" -

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The title of today's blog entry "Always keep hope" comes from my mom. That's her in today's pic, and that's my dad watching her. And on the computer screen you can see 150 students from Dumas Intermediate School in Dumas, Texas. I was invited to do a Skype visit with two groups of students from Dumas -- and because I was speaking about my novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mother's real-life experience in a Nazi concentration camp, it made sense for me to do the Skypes from my parents' house so that the students could meet my mom.

It's hard -- even for a writer -- to find words to tell you about what happened this morning. My mom is 85, a little frail, and far less connected to people than she used to be. Sometimes, she has trouble finding words for her sentences, but today, well, she was amazing. I did most of the talking (about writing in general, about how I did the research for What World Is Left), but I think it's safe to say that my mom stole the show!

The students deserve credit, too. Not only did they listen attentively, but they had prepared excellent, sensitive questions. A young man named Fabian asked my mom, "Who or what did you miss most?" My first reaction was that I should have thought of asking that question back in 2007 when I was researching the book! My mom paused for a moment before answering Fabian's question and I could feel her going back in time. She did not miss anyone or anything when she was in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. "You only could think of survival," she told Fabian.

Joaquim wanted to know what my mom ate for breakfast when she was imprisoned at Theresienstadt. "It's a very short story," my mom answered -- displaying her trademark sense of humor (I told the students that for me, my mom's humour is a sign of her resilience and courage.) Then she went on to explain that breakfast was a cup of fake coffee and two slices of dark bread.

Even the school's prinicpal, Mr. Rhodes, had a question for my mom. "I hope it won't be too difficult," my mom said, joking again. Mr. Rhodes wanted to know how the Holocaust affected my mom's view of God. "Did you ever feel that God had forgotten you?' he asked. I have to tell you that the question kind of took my breath away -- it's another question I've never asked my mom. Her answer? "God must have tried to stop it, but He didn't succeed."

I am feeling very privileged that I got to "travel" to Dumas today, and that I got to bring my parents along, too. Just as the title of today's blog entry comes from my mom, I'm also going to give her the last word. Before we shut down Skype, I asked my mom to say good-bye to the students. She told them, "Thanks. It made me feel hopeful."

Thanks to the Grade Six classes at Dumas Intermediate School, to your teachers who prepared you so well, to Mr. Rhodes, and Mrs. Craigmiles for arranging today's visit.

 

  3461 Hits
Nov
05

Working With Young Writers at Royal Vale School

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I am just home from a happy visit to Royal Vale School, where I worked with Mrs. Frank's two Grade Five English classes. (That's me with students from the first group in today's pic.) When I first meet students, I always ask, "How many of you enjoy writing?" -- but I have never had so many answer "Yes" to that question. In the first group, 20.5 students out of 24 said they enjoy writing. (The .5 reflects one young man who could not quite decide!)

We talked about some of my favourite subjects such as trouble and secrets. When I suggested to the students that they try to uncover their grandparents' secrets, a student named Imani gave me a great big smile. (Imani is standing next to me in the pic, wearing a grey sweatshirt.) Later, Imani told me she and her grandmother Alanna are super close and that she happens to be seeing her grandmother later today!

I told the students how I am always on the look-out for interesting material. Two students in the first class reported that their grandparents live downstairs from them. I thought that would make great story material.

I gave both groups a writing exercise that required them to access an old memory. This is how a student named Alex started the piece he wrote afterwards: "One day, I forgot to close the birdcage and my bird flew out." As I told Alex, this beginning really caught my attention -- and makes me want to know what happened next. Hey, Alex, finish that story -- and though you've started with a real-life memory, you might consider changing things up to add even more drama -- though I do hope there will be a happy ending.

At recess, a student named Lily told me her dream is to become an author. When I asked her what she learned from my visit, her answer made me laugh: "I learned basically everything!" I don't know if I taught you everything, Lily, but you sure made my day.

One of the students in the second group has the coolest name: Vegas. I asked him if he is named after Las Vegas -- and if perhaps he was conceived while his parents were on a trip to Vegas. It turns out he is named after another guy named Vegas. You see, there I was again making up stories!

Special thanks to Mrs. Frank for sharing her classes with me, to Miss Michelle, the student teacher, for participating in the writing exercises and being such a great role model to the students, and to Mr. Timpano, the vice-principal, who helped get my visit organized. I'll end today's blog with something Mrs. Frank told me when we were talking about the importance of re-writes. She shared a line she heard on the reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting: "Practice doesn't make perfect; practice makes progress."

It was great to start my day with you guys at Royal Vale. Here's to practice and progress and writing and reading!

  3302 Hits
Oct
31

Hallowe'en Visit to Mother Teresa Junior High

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That's me in today's pic -- psoing with a bloody bride and a scarecrow! I'm just back from a happy visit to Mother Teresa Junior High School, where I spoke to Miss Farrell's Grade Eight English classes. I talked about how I got to be a children's writer, shared my favourite writing tips, answered questions and got the students to do a little writing exercise.

I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my morning in today's blog entry.

Well, first there were the costumes. Imagine teaching a student who is dressed up to look like a bottle of Heinz ketchup! There was also a Fidel Castro lookalike ("my beard broke," he told me), as well as many zombies and soccer players.

One of the things we talked about is how writers don't always get their ideas when they are at their desks or in front of their computers. A student named Alyssa raised her hand to say that J. K. Rowling got the idea for her Harry Potter books when she was on a train. I didn't know that -- and now I'll be able to work that info into my presentation. Thanks, Alyssa! At recess, Alyssa came back to the library where I was doing my presentation and showed me an excellent short story she's working on. "I don't really like it," she told me. So I took that opportunity to tell Alyssa she should try to speak more kindly about her own creations! I suggested she try saying, "I know my story still needs work." I think the words we use to talk about writing matter -- and it's great to know our stories need work -- mine certainly do.

A student named Alex seemed to know a lot about the writing process. This is how he described it to me: "You're on a page and it's hard to imagine what to write when you get to another page." I told Alex I feel the same way. Partly, the feeling makes me a little anxious, but you know, it's also exciting not knowing what's coming next. Sometimes, when we're lucky, we writers surprise ourselves with our own stories!

I told the students that I am obsessed with asking the question, "What if?" -- and that that question "fuels" my stories. A student named Bridget, who during the writing exercise wrote a lovely paragraph about how distressed she felt as a little girl when she lost a necklace, told me she aks "What if?" a lot too. Especially, Bridget said, when she is dancing: "I often think, 'What if that one event happened and the chain effect it could create.'"

I get invited to schools to help inspire students to write... but as you can tell from today's blog entry, it often works the other way too. I've come home totally inspired by these young writers at MTJHS. Thanks, Miss Farrell, for the invite, and Miss Venditti for sharing your beautiful, recently pruned library with all of us today!

  1919 Hits
Oct
21

Meet Author Gillian Chan

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That's me and YA author Gillian Chan in today's pic. For now, we are upside down... but I am too excited to tell you about Gillian to worry about us being upside down. Besides, we look good that way!

Gillian lives in Dundas, Ont., but she was in town last week and I got to hang out with her -- and discuss life and books. I've been reading her historical YA novel, A Call to Battle, part of Scholastic's I Am Canada series, and finding it super good. Gillian is really into history, so it's not surprising that the book is full of interesting historical material, but what I like even more is how good Gillian is at capturing what goes on in her young narrator's mind. It is 1812 and Sandy MacKay is eager to fight for his country -- even if his dad thinks that is not a good idea.

I made sure to ask Gillian a few questions about her writing process so I could share them with you, dear blog reader. Heere's some of what I learned. Gillian generally writes in the mornings. She uses her afternoons to do research and for "goofing off" (Gillian's exact words). It turns out that Gillian is a great believer in goofing off. Here's why. She explained, "I get many of my ideas when I'm goofing off."

I asked Gillian if she had a little kernel of writing advice that I could pass on, and she kindly obliged. "Like bread dough," she said, "once a piece of writing is done, it needs to be set aside, to let it rise. In the mean time, you shouldn't touch it or think about it. When I come back to it, I see it with fresh eyes."

Hope you can use that advice. Here's to goofing off, fresh eyes -- fresh writing and fresh bread! Looking forward to our next visit together, Gillian!

  2673 Hits
Sep
29

Happy Visit to Champlain College in Lennoxville

Lucky me! I'm just back from Lennoxville, where I did a talk for students at Champlain College. I'm lucky because not only were the students a great audience, but also because I could not have asked for a more beautiful time of year to make the visit.

Lennoxville is about two hours from Montreal and I passed through the Eastern Townships on my drive there.

I talked to a group of about 100 students. I managed to tell them just about everything I know about writing and how it works for me (of course I pointed out that every writer has a different process and that they should find the process that works best for them). For many of the students at Champlain, English is their second language, but they seemed to be able to follow me without difficulty.

One of the things I discussed was how TROUBLE makes for great stories. First, I warned the students to STAY OUT OF TROUBLE!! But then I explained that for some of us (me included), sometimes trouble comes knocking -- even when we try to stay out of trouble. So I told students that should trouble come knocking they must remember one thing: TO USE IT FOR STORIES.

As I pointed out, no one wants to read a story about a character's best day ever. We are much more interested in what happens and how a character feels on his or her worst day imaginable. I also suggested that students who keep journals might try writing a sensory account of trouble. What, for instance, does trouble smell like? Gunpowder? Cigarette smoke? Alcohol? And what does trouble feel like, taste like, look like and sound like?

After my talk, a few students stopped to say hello. One was a young man named Daniel from Colombia who is studying nursing at Champlain. Daniel told me that when he was growing up in Colombia, his mom was a nurse and he sometimes accompanied her to work. He said that as a boy, he saw a lot of trouble: "I saw too much blood." When he told me that, I got goosebumps (always a sign for me that I am in proximity of a good story). A part of me felt sympathy for the boy this young man used to be, who saw "too much blood," but another part of me couldn't help but think... if you're going to be a writer (or in Daniel's case, a musician -- he told me he makes music), then USE IT.

Thanks to Ms. Evans for inviting me to Lennoxville. Thanks to the students for being a receptive audience, and to the other teachers for bringing their classes too! And to Ms. Evans's mom for the great cookies!

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1872 Hits
Sep
28

Mansfield Park -- 200 Years Later

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In two weeks' time, members of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) will gather here in Montreal to spend Thanksgiving weekend discussing Austen's 1814 novel, Mansfield Park.

But in a small way, my colleague Mary Frauley and I got the conference off to an early start -- because today we did a one-day literature and creative writing workshop (officially called the J. David Grey Young Writers' Workshop) for local teens. As you will have guessed, the focus of the workshop was Mansfield Park. Mary started the day with a lecture and lively discussion about the novel. She talked about how many of the novel's themes -- friendship, romantic love, the meaning of home, how we are affected by money and social standing -- remain relevant today. As Mary told the group, "A writer has an obligation to set things up and maybe wind them, then the writer stands away."

That pretty much sums up how the group spent the afternoon -- working on their modern-day renditions of Mansfield Park, setting things up and then letting their characters take over. I had the lovely job of reading and responding to their early drafts.

I should mention that it was a perfect fall day in Montreal -- but the eight teens who turned up for today's workshop never complained about being stuck indoors at the Atwater Library where the event took place. In fact, they didn't want to stop writing... and most of them were going to go home and keep working on their stories!

Mansfield Park is about Fanny Price, whose life changes when she goes to live with her rich relatives. The fact that she is an outsider at Mansfield Park means she sees the goings on there more clearly than anyone else.

Several of the students decided to write about outsiders.

Emma, a Grade Nine student from Macdonald High School, pictured her Fanny in an insane asylum (talk about a cool setting!). Here are a couple of lines from Emma's story: "Her family left Fanny in the hands of the orderlies. She was certain that she would die of fright all alone. Then she met him." As I told Emma, those lines really catch my attention and make me want to keep reading.

Michelle, a Grade Eleven student at Heritage Regional High School, came up with a creative approach to the assignment -- her Fanny wrote a thank you letter to her best friend, a character Michelle was going to base on the novel's Mary Crawford.

And Ishini, a first year student at Marianopolis College, described a Fanny who had recently been placed in a new foster home. Ishini did a great job of capturing the foster home in a single sentence: "The room smells of pot roast." I thought that description was a great example of SHOWING, NOT TELLING!

So you can see why I felt privileged to spend my day with these talented and passionate young writers. They have until the end of the week to finish their pieces of writing. Then their work will be entered in a contest. In additon to modest cash prices, three winners get a very cool invitation: to the upcoming JASNA conference!

Thanks to our eight young writers, to Mary for pitching in, and to JASNA for making today's workshop happen! And to Fanny Price -- for the inspiration!

 

 

 

 

  2253 Hits
Sep
22

Special Launch for Hate Mail

No time for a long blog entry today -- that's because I have a launch to get to. My own! And I need to go and buy half-a-dozen cartons of chocolate milk. Usually, people serve wine and cheese at book launches. But today's launch of my latest YA title, Hate Mail, takes place at a school (no wine allowed!). That's because I wrote the book last year with the help of Miss Scott's Grade Nine class at Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds.

If you've read my blog before, you may remember that the novel grew out of a project called Libres comme l'art, sponsored in large part by the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation. Thanks to the project, I was writer-in-residence last year at Riverdale and my task was to write five chapters of a story having to do with autism and depression. And then a wonderful thing happened: the manuscript grew and grew (thanks in large part to the students' input) and my publisher, Orca Books, acquired the manuscript. And now it's a real live book!

Yesterday, CBC Radio's All in a Weekend broadcast an interview with me and Hamza Bashir, one of Miss Scott's students. Hamza is the young man who came up with the idea behind Hate Mail. Here's a link to the interview in case you want to check it out. (And special thanks to reporter Sonali Karnick, who not only did a lovely interview, but who gave Hamza and his pals Shane and Bhahee Shan a a great tour of the CBC headquarters.)

As I said during the interview, this project was the most fun I ever had as an author. Imagine having your very own focus group -- a team of bright teenagers who told me what they liked about my story, what needed fixing, and who shared their own stories with me. Along the way, I hope they learned about the writing process -- the brainstorming behind a book, the research, the multiple drafts, and the not giving up when things get tough. I promise to post a pic from the launch later. Okay, time to get the chocolate milk!

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PS: It's seven at night and I'm back home... reporting to tell you that the launch was wonderful. Special thanks to the parents and grandparents who turned up. None of this could have happened without teacher Karen Scott, principal Roger Rampersad, librarian Sue Strano and Suzanne Nesbitt from the Lester B. Pearson School Board-- and of course the students. One student, Fahad Elsabawi, made a great speech and I asked his permission to quote from it. Here's what Fahad told the audience: "Thanks to a wonderful and interesting project made possible by Blue Metropolis, we were able to help Monique write a novel. That's a pretty big accomplishment for a high school student! I can tell you I'm proud!" Me too, Fahad! Thanks so much to all of you. You made this the most fun I have ever had working on a book!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  2172 Hits
Aug
30

Back in the Classroom!

It's Labour Day weekend and I've been back at school, teaching full-time, since August 20th. I was a little apprehensive about going back. Since the middle of May, I've been writing full-time, working on a new YA book project that will be published in the fall of 2016, and it was hard to let go of those long blocks of writing time. But on my very first day back, during the first class I taught, I remembered all over again why I love teaching -- because I love working with 17 and 18-year-olds who are more full of life and hope than any other people I know.

But that's not what this blog entry is going to be about. It's going to be about my favourite, most basic writing tip. In fact, the tip is only one word long. You ready?

CARE!

Yesterday, in my Humanities class at Marianopolis College here in Montreal, we were reviewing a hand-out I use in every class I teach. It's full of writing tips -- and even after all these years, I still get excited when I go over it. One of the tips suggests that students write about issues and experiences that affect them personally. Which led to my telling them, "Write about stuff you CARE about!" Then I went on to explain that though the writing may not be easier, chances are it will come out better.

And because I love examples and happened to have one handy, I told my students how I recently heard from a Montreal social work professor who has written a non-fiction book about her work with aging Holocaust survivors. Her research indicates that when seniors who have undergone severe trauma age, their minds often return to these traumatic memories (seniors who have not undergone trauma are apparently more likely to focus on happy memories). I explained to my students that because my mom, who is 85, is a Holocaust survivor, I really care about this subject. So guess what? I'm going to write about it for the Montreal Gazette. It doesn't mean I won't have to work hard (I will, there's going to be a lot of research involved in this assignment); and it doesn't mean the story will be easy to write (even after all these years, writing always feels like a challenge to me). But I know already it's going to be good... really good. Not because I'm such a talented writer. But because I CARE!

Happy Labour Day weekend. Hope you have lots of things to care about!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  2226 Hits
Jul
17

What Does CSI Have to Do With Writing Anyhow?

Hi blog readers!

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I am writing to you today from Mississauga, Ontario, where I am busy researching for a new book project.

It's kind of top-secret, so I can't tell you too much... except that it has to do with crime scene investigation.

I was kind of surprised to learn that there are important links between CSI and writing. Yesterday, when we were at the University of Toronto Mississauga's crime scene house (a very cool place), one of the university's forensics students told us, "Slow down! Focus on one piece of evidence!" She also explained that after crime scene investigators make sure they are safe, the next thing they need to do is be organized and methodical.

All that got me thinking that slowing down, focusing, and being organized are important parts of the writing process too. Sure I am excited about my new project, but like a crime scene investigator, I need to plan and focus!

Here are some of the things I'm learning about: DNA extraction, liquid chromatography and how to locate a hidden gravesite. It's one of those weeks where being a writer feels like the best job in all the world!

 

 

 

  2175 Hits
Jun
30

Five Tips Guaranteed to Get Kids Reading This Summer

Hello Monday morning! It’s just after eight and I’m already home after an early morning interview at Breakfast Television here in Montreal. (When the link to the interview gets posted later today, I’ll add it to this blog entry.)

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Reporter Laura Casella (that's us in today's pic) interviewed me about my books, but mostly about my tips for getting kids reading this summer. So, I figured I’d use today’s blog entry to share those tips – especially since I came up with a few more on my way home!

1. Parents who want to encourage their kids to read need to model good reading habits. There is no better way to turn kids into readers than by showing them that you love to read, too!

2. Start a family book club. Agree on a book you all want to read. Read it, then discuss it at your next barbecue or family brunch.

3. Read a book; see the movie. The ideal one for this summer is John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, which recently came out as a movie. Discuss the differences between the novel and the movie. Which did you prefer? Why?

4. Start a two-word-a-day journal. This is my favourite tip on today’s list. I used to do this with my daughter when she was little, but it can be done with kids of all ages (even grown-up ones!). At the end of the day, write down one word to describe how your day was, then another word to describe how you want tomorrow to be. One of the benefits of this mini-journal is that it encourages us to evaluate our days, and to give some conscious thought to our tomorrows.

5. Take advantage of the next rainy day to check out kids’ authors’ websites. Most of us have websites where, in addition to promoting our work, we talk about how we got into writing and offer writing tips. I wish that when I was a young aspiring author that that kind of material would have been widely available … if it had been, I think I might have gotten serious sooner about becoming a professional writer!

  3616 Hits
Jun
25

Meringues, Ups and Downs of a First Draft -- and Ann Patchett Comes to My Rescue

What in the world, you must be wondering, do meringues have to do with writing? Here comes the explanation: I am writing this blog entry to the background sound of my mom's old mixer -- inside the mixing bowl are five egg whites I am hoping to turn into a beautiful, delicious meringue. There's more to this story: I made a previous attempt at meringue-making last week, and it didn't turn out so well. Another person might give up on meringues altogether... but not me. I am the sort who soliders on. It is something I have learned from writing novels.

I have recently started working on what I am hoping will be my eighteenth YA novel. You'd figure that after all those other books, I'd know exactly what I'm doing, right? Instead, here I am... feeling like I am figuring out the process all over again!

I do love starting a new story. It's always a little scary, but for me, it's a time of endless possibility and of hope for great things. Unfortunately, those good feelings don't last forever. I keep writing and then, well, I begin to see the flaws and the problems and my own weaknesses. But I keep slogging, going backwards to fix up what I have already done, and slowly, slowly moving forwards.

I have found that sometimes a book comes to the rescue, even when I am not looking for a book to rescue me. Well, that's what happened when a friend, fellow writer Elaine Kalman-Naves, gave me Ann Patchett's collection of essays, This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage (Harper, 2013). Elaine had told me that though the book is partly about Patchett's marriage, it is also about writing.

So, during the last couple of weeks, after my days at the computer, I have taken solace in Patchett's wisdom. It turns out that she, too, goes through similar ups and downs when she writes. Here is, for instance, her description of writing a novel: "Novel writing, I soon discovered, is like channel swimming: a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea." Well, I keep telling myself, if Patchett feels that way too, I must not be doing such a bad job of it! Patchett also talks about working through those rough patches: "I holed up in my apartment and wrote, and plenty of times I got stuck."

I just checked on those egg whites. I wish I could say they are making stiff peaks the way the recipe says they should, but just like writing, this meringue business may require that I keep trying, working through those rough patches. Here's to fancy summer desserts, first drafts, and advice that brings comfort!

 

 

 

 

  2623 Hits
Jun
14

Dear Selkirk Elementary Students

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The reason I am smiling in today's pic is that I am reading the letters that came for me in yesterday's mail. They are from the students I worked with at Selkirk Elementary School in Whitehorse.

So, I thought I'd use today's blog entry to reply to you guys...

Dear Morgan, Caleb, Logan, Thaeron, Chanelle, Ritik, Ralph, Jessica, Cole, Kayden, Isaiah and Jess,

I am writing to thank you guys for your great letters. They came in yesterday's mail. I was in kind of a bad mood yesterday. You remember how I told you that sometimes writing feels frustrating and how I have to fight with myself to stay at the computer and continue fixing up my sentences and paragraphs? Well, it was that kind of a day. And guess what? Your letters cheered me right up!

I am glad that you seem to have enjoyed my visit. I also like that some of you (Isaiah, Kayden, Cole, Jessica, Ralph, Ritik and Chanelle) included drawings in your letters. Also, a couple of you made jokes about not listening to your dads -- that made me laugh out loud. You know what they say? That it's easier to make a reader cry than to make a reader laugh... so, good work!!

Jess, I'm glad you learned that writers need to leave the house to find inspiration. Thaeron, I'm happy that you enjoy writing about your personal life. Logan, don't ever give up! Caleb, it's great that my memory exercise worked for you. And Morgan, yes I remember your cool nail art!

I think school is over for you guys, but I hope that some of you will read this blog entry anyhow.

I miss the Yukon! You are lucky to live in such a gorgeous place! Look out for bears, okay? (I saw a grizzly bear with her two cubs on the day before I left.)

I will keep your letters in a special place -- and read them whenever I need cheering up. Have a great summer. Make time to read and write!

Thanks again for your letters!

Signed, Your Monique

  2000 Hits
Jun
06

Meet Lian Goodall

One of the highlights of my recent trip to the Yukon was meeting fellow author Lian Goodall.

Lian writes non-fiction for kids. Her books include Photographing Greatness: the Story of Karsh (Napoleon), and Singing Towards the Future: the Story of Portia White (Napoleon). Lian was born in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, but has lived in Whitehorse since 2012. When she heard I’d be touring the Yukon for TD Canadian Children’s Book Week she got in touch … and invited me for dinner. What neither of us could have expected is that we would become fast friends. Funny how that happens sometimes, isn’t it?

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Lian has many of the qualities I look for in a friend: she’s kind and fun and funny and smart. It also helped, of course, that we share a love for research and writing. I did not only have a delicious dinner at Lian’s house, I also brought along my notepad so that I could do a little interview and report back to you, dear blog reader. Here is some of what I learned from Lian.

Lian has been interested in stories since she was a little kid. “I’ve been story-izing since I was two.” Don’t you like how she invented that word “story-izing”?

When I asked her why she thinks stories matter, Lian told me: “I think storytelling is a fundamentally human act.” Lian has been researching the stories of real-life girls who were born and lived in the north – from Alaska to Greenland -- before 1900. After nearly four years of research, Lian recently began writing her first draft of the project. “Non-fiction is a long process,” she said. “You have to keep knitting your books for years. You need patience and dedication.”

Lian has found that there are hardly any books about young people born in the north. She’s trying to fix that. “My goal,” she told me, “is to give stories to kids who need these stories. Girls from the north need to read about themselves in an earlier time.”

Lian has three kids, including a daughter who lives here in Montreal. I’m hoping that means I’ll get to meet up with Lian soon so that we can continue our conversation – and our friendship. If not, I’ll have to find my way back to the Yukon – and Lian!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  2633 Hits
May
31

Meet Allie Brennan

I’ve been home from the Yukon – where I was lucky enough to travel for this year’s TD Canadian Children’s Week – for a couple of weeks, but my heart is still there. So I decided to do a couple of blog entries about some of the interesting, creative folks I met when I was there.

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  2213 Hits
May
22

It's All About Courage -- Lessons from a Special Class

Today I thought I'd devote my blog entry to the subject of courage and tell you about a group of students who've taught me a lot this year.

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  2067 Hits
May
10

Mayo: A Little Town With Lots of Stories

Can you believe I visited 14 schools in the Yukon in five days? Today I woke up in Mayo, a little town four hours north of Whitehorse, so that I could work with grades seven to twelve students at J.V. Clark School.

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  2120 Hits
May
09

Did I Mention that I Saw a Black Bear?

Guess what? I saw a black bear today! We were on the road between Stewart Crossing and Mayo!

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  2123 Hits
May
08

Wednesday in Whitehorse

I'm feeling so at home here in Whitehorse. It could be because when I walk into the local café Baked, people say, "Hey, weren't you at my school yesterday?"!

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  2425 Hits
May
07

Falling in Love with the Yukon!

The Yukon is out-of-this-world gorgeous and every school I visit seems to bring a fresh adventure. Here's what I mean...

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  2373 Hits
May
06

Reporting in from the Yukon

I had a big day here in the Yukon. I did four school visits in the Whitehorse area, but instead of feeling tired, I am flying high!

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  2339 Hits
May
05

Hello From the Yukon!!

It’s not every day a Montreal children’s writer gets to do a writing workshop at the Whitehorse Public Library – but thanks to TD Canadian Children’s Book Week, that’s exactly what I did today.

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May
04

Sarah Harvey Comes to Montreal... and I Go to the Yukon

TD Canadian Children's Book Week officially kicks off on Monday, May 6 this year... but author-editor Sarah Harvey and I got an early unofficial start. 

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May
01

Lots to Blog About - Includ'g Blue Met & Early Start on TD Cndn Children's Bk Wk

Warning to readers of this blog entry: you might need to take a nap after you read it. I'm going to tire you out when I fill you in on all the excitement over here!

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Apr
26

Guess Who Came to my Writing for Children Class Today?

See the two special guests who came to visit my Writing for Children class today (they're sitting in chairs at the front of the picture)?

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