monique polak

Monique Polak's Books


Happy Morning at Westwood Junior High School

I'm just home from my morning visit to Westwood Junior High School in Saint-Lazare. I worked with nine Grade Eight English classes, and though the library got pretty packed, the students were focused and fun.

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Fun School Visit at DDO Library

I've been doing school visits for nearly ten years -- so when I was invited to speak to students today at the Dollard-des-Ormeaux Library, I figured I'd probably already visited the school they go to. But it turns out the students were from a school I'd never even heard of: Emmanuel Christian School.

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Happy Start to the Week at Terry Fox School

I'm just home from a lovely morning spent with three Grade Five classes at Terry Fox Elementary School in Pierrefonds.

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Skyping with a Reader in Baie-Comeau

I started the day with a Skype conversation with a reader in Baie-Comeau. Vickie Bouchard (that's her in today's pic) is a Sec. IV student at Baie-Comeau High School and she and her classmates have been studying the Holocaust.

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My Day Gets Off to a Happy Start: Visit to Honoré-Mercier School

I started my day today at Honoré-Mercier School, where I did writing workshops with three groups of Grade Four students. Each class had its own “character.” Mademoiselle Elisa’s students were wide-awake and focused (even though it was 8:30 in the morning). Ms. Dina’s students were quiet, but they produced some terrific writing. And Miss Angela and Madame Marnie’s students had loads of excellent questions – and made me laugh.

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Meet Amy Mathers -- of Amy's Marathon of Books

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of interviewing a real star on the Canadian YA book scene: Amy Mathers.

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Tingles Inside Our Elbows -- A visit with the 85th Montreal Girl Guides

Last night, one of my former students, Elizabeth Knowles, invited me to come and meet her girl guides troop. The girls, who are aged nine to eleven, are working on their reading and writing badges... so it made sense for them to meet someone like me -- who reads and writes A LOT!

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Happy Day at William Latter School

In case you're wondering why, in today's pic, I am reading (with a little help) from the Dutch version of What World Is Left -- it's because I did a visit at William Latter School in Chambly, and I met a student named Amber, who moved from Nijmegen in the Netherlands, to Quebec when she was eight. I happened to have Een Andere Wereld in my book bag and it was great fun to hear Amber read from it!

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Introducing Sylvia Gunnery... and Squiggly Lines

Last week, my friend and fellow teacher Mary Eva invited a bunch of kid-lit fans over to her house to meet Nova Scotia YA author Sylvia Gunnery. 

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Day 2: St. Thomas High

Today is my second day of writing workshops at St. Thomas High School this winter. By this afternoon, I’ll have met all the grade nine students here.

Some of the teachers have wanted me to do writing exercises. Other have asked me to focus on telling their students everything I can about writing.

This morning, I asked one group to remember back to when they were ten years old and to jot down details about their memories. This exercise – one I use with my students at Marianopolis College – yielded some interesting results. A student named Giovanna began her piece with the line, “I rang my friend’s doorbell.” I told Giovanna her beginning works because it has energy and the reader can’t help wanting to know what happens next. I also suggested she use the “what if?” question if she wants to turn this memory into a fictional piece. What if, for example, her friend’s parents were having a big fight? Or what if her friend was packing up to run away from home? (Notice that both my examples involve TROUBLE. As I pointed out to the students today, trouble is like gasoline -- it helps move a story forward.)

A student named Maryam remembered being at school and realizing that, “people standing away from us … [were] staring [at us].” As I pointed out to Maryam, this line, too, makes for an intriguing story. Why were the people staring – and perhaps even more importantly, how did that make Maryam feel?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know I am obsessed with details and observations. Every time I visit a school, I look for interesting details I might be able to use in a future book. Here come two I found today:

A student named Megan has a cool birthmark on her forehead. Megan was kind enough to tell me a little about her birthmark. She said, “Once when I was camping, someone said, ‘There’s a sticker on your forehead.’” Megan says she’s used to people commenting on her birthmark; she added that there’s also something positive about her birthmark. “I find it makes me different,” she explained.

My second observation has to do with body language. There were a lot of students in my third group, which meant they were sitting close together. Well, I spotted an example of student body language I had never seen before – not in 30 years of teaching! A student was braiding her neighbour’s hair! The two students (the braider and the braid-ee) kindly agreed to be photographed for this blog, though I promised I wouldn’t divulge their names.


You know what I find? If you’re the observant sort, you’ll never ever be bored. Let me know if you have any interesting or funny observations about classroom life. Maybe I’ll use your observation in my next book. Hey, if I do, I promise to thank you in the acknowledgments!

Speaking of thank you's ... many thanks to St. Thomas librarian Carolyn Pye for inviting me to her school. Over the years, Mrs. Pye and I have become friends – one more bonus that comes with being a writer!




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In Which We Are Never Too Old for a Valentine Card Exchange...

I teach my Writing for Children class on Wednesday and Friday afternoons -- so the timing was perfect this year for us to celebrate Valentine's Day!

Last week, students drew names out of a baseball cap. Their assignment -- due today -- was to write an anonymous love letter to the student whose name they drew. 

On Wednesday this week, I gave the class a crash course in writing a love letter. I explained that this was a vital life skill! For starters, I explained that when you write a love letter, you have to indicate that you love your person for the right reasons. By way of example I told the class that if my husband wrote me a love letter in which he praised me for my calm, quiet, introverted personality... well, it would be a very bad love letter because I'm not calm or quiet and certainly not introverted.

So I went through the class list slowly and we took time to admire each student. And I explained that they had one goal: to write a letter so beautiful that one day, many years from now, when the recipient is packing up to move to an old age home, he or she will bring the love letter they received on February 14, 2014.

Students had to deposit their letters before class in my specially-made box (see today's first pic) and you should have seen people's faces when they were reading their letters. They looked TRANSPORTED! I asked how many got great love letters and I'd say about half the class raised their hands.

So if this doesn't prove the power of words, well, I don't know what does!

In today's second pic, you can see my wonderful students. This picture was taken post-Valentine's celebration and pre-test.

Happy Valentine's Day to one and all. Here's to love and language and love letters!

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"Should I throw it out?"

“Should I throw it out?” a student named Alexandra asked me this morning. Alexandra is in Grade Nine at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire, where I did a school visit today. Alexandra was considering throwing out something she had written for a writing exercise.

Of course, I told Alexandra, “DO NOT THROW IT OUT!”

I then asked if I could take a look at what she’d written and it turned out it was a super interesting set of notes about a childhood memory. Alexandra had even made my job easier by underlining the word bullied, the most important part of her story. 

It happens to be lunchtime at St. Thomas as I’m writing this blog entry and how’s this for a coincidence? Alexandra just came by to say hello! Which is handy because I was thinking how I wished I’d told her something author Tamora Pierce once told me: “No word a writer ever writes is wasted.” In other words, everything we write is part of our process. (Of course that doesn't mean you should never throw anything out -- but I wouldn't go throwing out a set of fresh notes.)

Some of the Grade Nines at St. Thomas are working on writing memoirs. I stressed the importance of including details to bring scenes alive. I also explained that writers must be good observers.

Here are a couple of observations I made at St. Thomas today….

While I was speaking to the first class, I noticed a student had turned the bookmark I had given her into a paper airplane! She had hooked the bookmark through the clip on her red pen. This invention (see today's pic!) demonstrated both this student’s creativity and also the fact that she might not have been paying 100 per cent attention to my presentation!


 Later, I OVERHEARD (writers should also be good at eavesdropping) a student named Eric say that only the IB (which stands for International Baccalaureate) students bring their books to class. When I mentioned this to the class, Mike, a non-IB student, smacked his book down on the table. That made all of us laugh and of course, it was Mike’s way of saying he is just as studious as an IB student. Also, Mike’s action tells us something about him, doesn’t it? Details like these are great for including in stories.

In addition to teaching St. Thomas students a little about writing, I couldn’t help also doing my favourite activity – hunting for stories. There was an assembly this morning to honour Miss Cyr, the principal who is about to retire. I asked some students whether anything funny happened during the assembly and they told me a good story: that when he was making his speech, one of the vice-principals said to Miss Cyr: “I was hoping you’d retire earlier so I could get your job!” Now that’s the kind of funny remark I might be able to use in a book some day!

I ended my day with a lovely, most amusing group of students. When we talked about how trouble fuels stories, I asked the class whether they should ever get into trouble themselves. I was hoping, of course, that they'd say no, but Diason answered: "Get into trouble sometimes!" And when we were talking about odd places to get story ideas, Emily and John both agreed that, like me, they get good ideas in the SHOWER. Then John added, "Or on the toilet!"

I’ll be back at St. Thomas next Monday to meet with the rest of the Grade Nines. If any of you want to show me your work, come by at lunchtime – I like to have good reading material when I eat my sandwich!

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I Smell Talent!

As you may know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I am back to being a full-time teacher at Marianopolis College here in Montreal. Life feels way busier, but also more full. And what can I say? I get a big kick out of teenagers. They're fun, they're funny, they ask good questions, and of course, they give me inspiration for my YA stories!

The title of today's blog entry is "I Smell Talent!" That's a comment I write on some of my students' assignments -- and I've been smelling a lot of talent even though we are only two weeks into the semester.

For their first assignment, I asked students in my Writing for Children class to visit either a children's bookstore or the children's section of a local library. I told them to hunt for specific details. And so, for today's blog, I'm going to share some examples of really good writing that came from the class. (I got the students' permission to include their first names.)

Here goes!

Emily wrote: "The book stacks were less intimidating -- it was as though they had lost a few inches in height." In class, we discussed why this line works so well and decided it had to do with the fact that Emily SURPRISED us. We expect people's heights to change, not book stacks!

Isabella described the scene she encountered as "a teleportation device back to my childhood." Here, Isabella shows us she is a playful writer and she manages to communicate an important message in just a few words.

Mrittika described a little girl she saw at the library: "After playing with her gum, which she later stuck underneath the table." We loved Mrittika's observation and how she managed to capture the girl's mischievousness!

Brian did a great job of describing Montreal kids during winter: "hat-hair... red cheeks and dripping nose, along with the permanent snow pants/overalls." Even if you live in the Caribbean (lucky you!) and have never visited Montreal, Brian's description will "take you there."

Laura showed us her sense of humour when she wrote: "My career goal in kindergarten was to be a cowgirl." As I told the class, they say it's harder to make a reader laugh than to make him or her cry... so great job, Laura -- and thanks for making your teacher laugh out loud when she read your paper!

Stephanie is in the Music program at school, so it's not a surprise that she did a great job describing sounds in the library, "swishing pages" and a little boy who is having trouble with the word "van": "at first stuck on the word... then forgetting he's reading, just enjoying the sound of the letter 'v.'''

I'll end today's blog entry with two students who captured a similar wistful feeling. Joyce described the children's library she visited as "feel[ing] so different. Louder. More colourful. And also somehow happier." Similarly, Amanjot described a girl she observed whose name is Mina: "Mina has a wonderful imagination which allows her to get lost in the book she is reading. I want to be more like Mina."


So... here's to teenagers learning from little kids (and of course from their teachers too). And here's to teachers taking joy in their students' talent and being inspired by them.



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It's All About ... Pierre!

So after an eight-month writing sabbatical, I am back to teaching full-time at Marianopolis College here in Montreal.

To be honest, I was a little anxious about going back to full-time teaching. I think it's because I got used to long blocks of writing time -- and now I'll need to carve out writing time whenever I can find it.

But it didn't take me long to re-discover that I really do love teaching, and that I especially love being around teenagers. For me, teens are THE MOST INTERESTING PEOPLE IN THE WORLD. They wonder about things and they ask questions and they're SPUNKY! Besides, how do you think I get all the characters in my YA novels? I find most of them in my classes and in the hallways at Marianopolis!!

Okay, now back to the title of today's blog entry: It's All About ... Pierre!

One of the courses I am teaching this semester is called "Writing for Children." On Day 1, I announced that I had a special treat -- I read the class Maurice Sendak's Pierre. If you've never read it, here's a link where you can actually hear American actress and singer Tammy Grimes reading it to you! (She does an even better job than I did!)

Pierre has a terrible problem: he doesn't care!

Which led us into a great discussion about the need to CARE. I told the class that if they don't care about what they're learning (not just in my class, in all their classes), they won't learn much. And I explained that writers need to CARE about their subjects and their characters and their readers if they hope to tell good stories. In fact, now that I think about it, I can't think of any pursuit that does not require caring!

I'm also teaching a course in Print Journalism. There, we'll be working on a very different kind of writing. But you know what I did yesterday with my class of future reporters? I read them Pierre

And I think they understood why. Here's to writing and teaching, and especially to CARING!

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Introducing Yesterday's Surprise: MISS SIMPSON!

If you happened to read yesterday's blog entry, I mentioned I had a happy surprise. Here she is -- MISS SIMPSON!

As usual, I need to TELL A STORY to explain the surprise. 

In November, I paid a visit to St. Lawrence Senior School to do some writing workshops. I was working with Grade Six classes. I like to finish my workshops with a writing exercise and because I'm super-interested in the link between writing and memory, I asked the students to remember being five years old.

While they were writing up their memories, I circulated in the library (shout out to Miss Wendy, the St.Lawrence Senior librarian!) and read what the students were writing. When one wrote about memories of being in a kindergarten class with a teacher named Miss Simpson, I didn't think much about it. But when I continued circulating and discovered that about the half the class was writing about Miss Simpson, I GOT GOOSEBUMPS (goosebumps happen to me when I am in the proximity of A GOOD STORY).

So... here's what happened next. I told the class I was going to write about Miss Simpson in that day's blog entry. Then, one of the teachers said she knew Miss Simpson and that she'd tell her to read the blog. And then... (warning, there's a lot of AND THEN's in this story!!), a day or two later, I got a lovely email from a young woman named Jodi. Jodi told me she had volunteered long ago in Miss Simpson's classroom and that Miss Simpson had read the blog and was really touched that her former students still remembered her so warmly. Jodi finished her email by adding one more detail: she was Miss Simpson's daughter!

But the story's not over yet!

I phoned Miss Simpson and we had a lovely chat -- and agreed that one day we must get together with Miss Wendy, the librarian I mentioned before. Miss Simpson also told me her son teaches at Sunshine Academy and that she heard I'd be visiting there this January. But to be honest, I kind of forgot that part of the story.

And then... yesterday, when I arrived at Sunshine, Miss Susan, the lovely librarian there, told me there was going to be a surprise for me. (I wondered if it would be FOOD!) But it was better than food!!

I was just starting my workshop with Mr. P's class when a lovely woman walked in and said hello in a way that indicated she knew me. I said hello back -- I tried not to let on I had no idea who she was. And then she told me, "I'M MISS SIMPSON!"

So, I hope the students from St. Lawrence Senior are reading today's blog entry. That's because I asked Miss Simpson if she had a message for you -- and she did. She said, "You touched me immensely. Teaching kids is my life. That's why [even though I am retired], I still go into schools whenever I can. And I'm coming to your grad!"

For Mr. P's students, who may also be reading today's blog entry, I asked Miss Simpson if she had a memory of Mr. P she might share with you, and she did. Here it comes: "He used to have an imaginary friend named Saintsouvel. One day, we had to stop to let him out of the car!"

There are many reasons why this surprise made me so happy. I got to meet Miss Simpson and her son (and get a message from her daughter). And it's all because of STORIES. And I get to pass on Miss Simpson's message to her former students who still love her, and also her message to her son's students, who seem to love their teacher too! So, today, I celebrate stories and teachers and memories ... and happy surprises! Sometimes, we get to be part of stories!! Thanks to all of you who helped make this one happen!!

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Sunshine-y Day

It's cold and grey in Montreal, but I still had a sunshine-y day -- thanks to Mr. P's, Miss Jennifer's and Miss Houlihan's students at Sunshine Academy. (Plus a really fun and surprising thing happened... but you'll have to check tomorrow's blog entry to read about that.) 

Okay, back to my sunshine-y day. I've visited Sunshine Academy several times, so I know my way around! My first stop was the library, where I chatted with my friend, school librarian Mrs. Susan. 

Then it was on to the classrooms. I met two groups of students -- both quite different, and fun in their own ways. Mr. P's students were wide awake and focused. I told them several stories, then moved on to writing tips and a short writing exercises. Many of the students already enjoy writing. Some have great stories to tell. For example, Yasin, who was born in Haiti, but who traveled last summer to Rwanda. He knows a lot about Rwanda's history and about the terrible genocide that happened there. In fact, Yasin knows someone whose mother lived in Rwanda during those years. If you know me, you can guess what I told him: INTERVIEW THE WOMAN, ASK QUESTIONS, GET HER STORY! THEN WRITE IT DOWN!

When I do school visits, of course I'm there to teach the students, but sometimes I end up learning cool stuff, too. For instance, I learned it is possible to talk and yawn at the same time (thanks, Jesse, for the demonstration!), and that Sneha (the name of one of the students) is Hindi for "affection." (I told Sneha that I love saying her name -- it's the kind of word that rolls on your tongue in the most pleasant way!)

During the writing exercise, a student named Ryan wrote about a game he used to play with a friend in elementary school. I won't say too much about it here -- except that it makes a great story, Ryan -- and I hope you'll write it!

There was a short break between my two sessions -- that's when events relating to the surprise took place -- and then it was onto Miss Jennifer and Miss Houlihan's class. As soon as I walked into the classroom, I knew it was going to be an adventure. That's because a man who looked like he could be a cop (only he wasn't in uniform!) was sitting at the back of the room. That turned out to be Mr. Garen, who was there to keep his eye on students' behavior. (I might have to use that scene in a book one of these days.)

The second group was what I'd call high-energy! But they did keep me entertained. We talked about how trouble fuels a story. Then we found a case of trouble in the classroom: a young man named Abedin happened to be coming down with a cold precisely during my talk. Poor Abedin was sneezing and sniffling, but being extremely polite about it -- and not being insulted when I started backing away from his desk!

This second group had loads of questions. Alex loves writing and wanted to know the best way to start a story. He explained that his last story begins with the classic opening, "Once upon a time." I told him "Once upon a time" is great for fairy tales, but he might shake things up by beginning with an exciting scene, or a surprising twist, or great dialogue.

Because there wasn't time to answer every question, I spent lunchtime in the library, where several students dropped by to show me their work or ask more questions. A student named Khyleigh told me she read my book 121 Express in a day -- that she even read it while she walked home and also at Tim Hortons. Daphne asked about the steps that go into making a book (great question, Daphne!) and I tried to give her a good answer, which was basically: getting the idea, doing research, starting to write, re-writing, re-writing, developing more ideas, doing more research as necessary, re-writing and re-writing! 

I'm afraid I've written a very long blog entry today, but that's because there was so much interesting stuff to tell you. Some days, school visits demand a lot of my energy. Other days, and today was one of them, I get energized by the young people I meet. (Okay, the surprise helped too -- read tomorrow's blog entry to find out what the surprise was. Hey, I didn't know I could write cliffhangers!!!)

Thanks, Mrs. Susan, for the invite. PS: You make good coffee!




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Last Day as Writer-in-Residence at Riverdale High

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know I've been doing a stint as writer-in-residence at Riverdale High School. Thanks to an amazing Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation  project called Libres comme l'art, I've been writing a YA novel with the help of Miss Scott's Grade Nine English class.

I first met the class in September, when we tossed around ideas for the story. Blue Met asked us to include the subjects of autism and depression, so that was the first challenge -- coming up with a story that would explore those subjects while appealing to teens.

Today, I read the class the last six chapters of the story's first draft.

Check out today's pic -- I think it is one of my favourite pics ever. (Thanks Mrs. Strano, for taking the pic.) The reason I love it so much is because YOU CAN SEE THE STUDENTS GOBBLING UP MY STORY. (Yippee!!!!)

There are many fun things about being a writer, but sometimes writing makes for a solitary life. We writers often try to imagine our audiences, so you can understand what a gift it was for me to actually meet my readers -- and to see them concentrating on the story I've been writing with -- and for -- them.

You know what my favourite sound was today? When I heard the students flipping from one page to the next!!! (I could tell they wanted to know what would happen next!!!) (Sorry for all the exclamation marks, but hey, I'm excited.)

During today's session, Fahad kindly helped me by reading out loud when my voice got tired. Later, I asked the students to jot down what they'd learned about writing by participating in this project. I thought you might enjoy some of their answers. Fahad wrote, "The thing I've learned in writing stories is that every story has to have a problem (or more than one) and every problem has to have a solution." Christian said, "I learned that it is very important to read your work out loud in front of people for criticism and to correct your mistakes" and Jordana said, "being a writer is writing many drafts."

Though my official residency is now over, I think I'll be visiting the students once more this winter. To be honest, I've come to rely on their ideas and feedback. For me, this project was a wonderful gift -- and I like to think I taught the students some real-life lessons about writing.

Here's to stories and teamwork and solving problems (in stories, and in real life, too)!

Special thanks to Miss Scott for sharing her class, to Mrs. Strano for sharing her library, to Suzanne Nesbitt for bringing the project to Riverdale, to Mr. Rampersad for being a super supportive principal, and to Laure Colin and the Blue Met team for making this project happen. And finally thanks to Orca Book Publishers, who'll be publishing the book in fall 2014.

PS: To my friends at Riverdale, I'll be revising the manuscript this winter. I'll make sure to blog about the process -- so check back in here if you want to know how the rewrite's going!

PSS: I already miss you guys!



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The Plot Thickens -- Latest Report from Riverdale High School

One day this fall, when I was walking into Riverdale High School, I heard a student tell his friend, "That's our writer." I must say it was one of my proudest moments EVER! This year, thanks to the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation, I am writer-in-residence at Riverdale. I'm working with Miss Scott's Grade 9 English class on a project called Libres comme l'art: I write a story and the students give me input and feedback.

Yesterday was my sixth visit to the school ... and the PLOT THICKENS. Not only did I tell the students my latest real-life story (this one is about a budgie), I read them six new chapters of the story I am calling Hate Mail.

I don't want to give too much away, but I will tell you that the idea of using hate mail in the story came from one of my star pupils: Hamza. (He is the tall student at the back of today's pic. Not the one saluting -- that's Shayne. Hey Shayne, if you're reading this, let me know if there's a Y in your name, or if I got it confused with another star pupil!) The boy standing next to me in the pic -- Jarred -- also did some great research about airplanes, another element in the story.

We had a few special visitors at my session yesterday, William St-Hilaire, president of Blue Metropolis, came to meet the students -- and so did Frédérique Belair from Conférence Régionale des Elus de Montréal and Régane Bougé from the Conseil des Arts de Montréal, two agencies that have helped make this project possible.

But I haven't told you the best news of all. This little project I've been working on -- which includes the five chapters I read to the students yesterday -- it's going to be published as a book this coming fall by Orca Book Publishers.

You know how people say, "I couldn't have done it without you"? Well, in this case, it's really true. I may be the author of the book, but this one is a real team effort. Thanks to the organizations that are making it possible, thanks to Miss Scott and Suzannne Nesbitt from the Lester B. Pearson School Board, librarian Sue Strano, and principal Roger Rampsersad, but most of all, THANKS TO THE WONDERFUL STUDENTS. (And don't worry, you guys, I will call it basketball, not b-ball!)

Looking forward to seeing all of you in January -- and reading you the end of the first draft. I wish you happy holidays -- filled with interesting stories!!!

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Belle Visite à Beauport!

Oops, excuses-moi Hélène Blanchet, I keep slipping in French words when I speak to your étudiants... I just did it again!

I'm at the train station in Quebec City, reporting in after a fun day with Hélène's three Sec. III enriched English classes at Ecole Sécondaire de la Seigneurie in Beauport, a cozy suburb just outside of Quebec City.

The students were great and I'm impressed with how bilingual they are. If you know me, you will know I'm a speedy talker and that I have a habit of telling a lot of stories... well, even though the students' first language is French, they seemed to have no trouble keeping up with me! I told them how I wish I was even more bilingual. (My spoken French is quite good, but I'd never dare to write an article or a story in French.) So, in this way, I am a little envious of the young people I worked with today!

We discussed many things about writing. I told one group how I was influenced by writer/illustrator David Small who advises writers to "Write about the things that keep you up at night" -- and I explained how those words spurred me on to write my latest novel, So Much It Hurts.

I also told the students about my interest in doing research and uncovering secrets. I explained that my historical novel, What World Is Left, is based on a sad chapter in my mum's life, events she kept secret for over 60 years. I asked the students to guess how I managed to find out my mum's story. A student named Marie-Laurence answered, "Maybe you found a book or a diary that she wrote." Though that isn't what happened, I was impressed with Marie-Laurence's answer -- it shows she has the mind of a writer. She was imagining an interesting story! Later, when I gave the students a writing exercise, Marie-Laurence got a little emotional. I told her that that's another sign she might be a writer. I shared a wonderful quote from American writer Ring Lardner: "How can you write if you can't cry?"

A student named Etienne also seems to have embarked on the writing life. Etienne has already written 70 (!!) pages of a novel -- in French. You know what I was thinking, Etienne? That it would be cool if someone (maybe you!) tried to write a BILINGUAL novel. What do you think?

Another interesting person I met today was Julie Bouchard. A graduate of Ecole Sécondaire de la Seigneurie, she is now doing her Ph.D. in linguistics at Texas A&M -- Commerce. Julie is doing research at her old high school -- taping students' conversations with each other in the classroom. If you ask me, she could probably write a novel with all that info!!

So, Hélène, thanks for inviting me back to your school -- but most of all, thanks for sharing your students with me. As you told your classes, writing is writing -- no matter what language we do it in.

A final word for Hélène's students: I'm finishing up this blog entry on the train... if it hadn't been for all of you, I might never have learned the story of the talking budgie. I'm already trying to figure out how I can find a way to include that bird in one of my books!! Remember what I told you: "Use it!" Bonne chance with your reading and your writing! Great to meet you all today!




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Falling in Love with a Class

I have to admit -- I think I've fallen in love with a class. That's them in today's pic. They're Sebastian Piquette's students from Mackay Centre School. My pal, photographer Monique Dykstra (that's her in the white sweater), and I have been working with Sebastian's class (that's Sebastian standing by the window, in a grey top), helping them use words and photos to produce a chapter in this year's edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. Quebec Roots is an educational program sponsored by the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation.

Several classes from schools across Quebec are participating. Each class comes up with their own topic. Sebastian's students decided to write and take photos about what life in a wheelchair is like.

I've certainly learned a lot from these terrific terrific kids.

If you've been at one of my writing workshops, you may remember that I get a lot of ideas in the shower! Well, before our last workshop with the Mackay students, I took a quick shower and came up with what I thought was a good idea -- to get the students to work together to produce a list of what they want the rest of us to know about how to treat them.

Later that morning, we did a brainstorming exercise and I was deeply moved -- and also enlightened -- by what the students had to say. We produced the following list. (It'll appear in this year's edition of Quebec Roots, so consider this a sneak preview!). 

1.  We don’t like it when you stare at us.  We are not strange.

2.  Be friendly to us. We are regular kids who happen to go to school in wheelchairs. Yeah man!

3.  If you see us struggling to pick something up or open or close a door, ask us, “Do you need my help?” Don’t just walk past us without saying anything.

4.  Be patient with us. Some of us stutter or have difficulty speaking.

5.  We are powerful. We can do everything even if it is sometimes hard.

6.  Don’t feel sorry for us. We are happy.

Now I bet you can tell why I've fallen in love with this class. And wait until you see the photos they've been shooting!

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Happy Day at Orchard Elementary School

I'm just in from a happy day at Orchard Elementary School in Lasalle. I worked with two groups of Grades Five and Six students -- and they were lively!

In today's first pic, meet Madison who, along with her friend Amanda, decorated the library door for my visit. I had to take a picture of course! And in the second pic, you can see two students engaged in my favourite activity: WRITING!

You may notice that in the second pic, the student on the right, Kayla, has a small booboo on her nose. Well, believe it or not, that ties into some of the writing tips I shared with the students today. First of all, a writer needs to be observant. Second of all, a writer needs to be snoopy. So, first I observed the booboo, then I inquired about it. Kayla told me she sometimes has trouble breathing, so she uses a nose strip -- only she put it on too tight and it left a blue mark.

This turns out not to be the end of the story. When I was leaving the school with Miss Wendy, the librarian, we spotted Kayla -- with gauze on her forehead!! So, once again, this snoopy writer asked what had happened. Well, during recess Kayla whacked her head on some ice. You know what? I just might need to include a girl like Kayla in one of my stories -- a girl who is having an accident-prone day. (Kayla, I hope you get a good sleep tonight and wake up booboo-free tomorrow!)

I told the students as much as I could about how writing works -- how it's important to make writing and reading daily habits, and how both those things have saved my life! I also explained that writing doesn't only happen at a desk, and that sometimes I write when I am in the shower or making tea. A student named Jaden remarked, "Writing doesn't always come from a pen" -- I thought that was a beautiful, creative line.

We also talked about interviewing people in order to learn their secrets. I suggested that students interview their grandparents and if their grandparents are not available, to round up someone else's grandparents! A student named Jahni said that when his grandpa was recently visiting Montreal, he stopped strangers to tell them stories. Now that grandpa sounds like a perfect person to interview!

We also talked about how trouble fuels stories. A student named Lytia asked me, "So you don't use good?" I thought that was a brilliant question, Lytia. It is true that, generally, I use a lot of trouble in my stories, but usually, the characters develop because of the troubles they experience ... and I think that's definitely a good thing.

So, I must admit my house feels kind of quiet after being at Orchard Elementary. Thanks to Miss Wendy for inviting me. And to the students, thanks for the inspiration. Don't forget to read and write -- and stay out of trouble. But if trouble happens, use it in a story!!

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Some Days Being an Author Means You Get to Go to Flying School!

Since I'm on sabbatical from teaching until January, I spend most of my days sitting at the computer, writing and re-writing until I reach my daily word quota.

Some days are a little more eventful. Like today!

Here's what happened: I am about to write a scene set at a flying school. So I googled flying schools in the Montreal area and checked out their websites. Then, on a whim, I phoned one up and a pleasant gentleman answered the phone. I told him I write YA books and I wondered if maybe I could pop by some time for a visit.

Well, it turns out the man at the other end of the phone was Philippe Gélinas, president of Dorval Aviation, and he suggested I come right over for a tour!!


So, let's just say it was one of those days when it's really fun to be a writer.

I took today's pic while sitting in a Cessna 172 airplane! (I got to sit in the pilot's seat.) Mr. Gélinas, who is himself a pilot and flight instructor, explained to me how everything works (while I scribbled notes madly). For instance, I learned that the floor pedals control the rudder, which is part of the plane's tail. I also learned you have to put something called the "mixture" to "full rich" before you can put the key in the ignition.

I took lots of notes and I saw more cool stuff: a flight simulator and this giant map of navigation airways.

When I do writing workshops, I'm always telling students how important it is to do research. But now I realize I've forgotten to tell them something else all these years: SOME DAYS, DOING RESEARCH CAN BE AMAZINGLY FUN AND EXCITING! PS: Today was one of those days!!!


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How Did My Day Go So Quickly at St. Lawrence Academy Senior Campus?

I just got home from an all-day visit to St. Lawrence Academy Senior Campus here in Montreal. I worked with four groups of Grade Six students -- and instead of being zonked out, I'm energized! 

I talked about many of my favourite subjects: the importance of reading and writing (daily if possible); the need for revising our work; where story ideas come from; and how asking the question "What if?" can help advance a story.

I also had special permission from my friend, the school's librarian, Wendy Corner, and the school's principal, Mr. Adrien, to talk a little about my latest YA novel, So Much It Hurts. Both Miss Wendy and Mr. Adrien knew that the subject matter -- violence in relationships -- is serious and difficult, but I want to thank both of them for letting me tackle the topic today. And I want to say thanks to the students for listening so kindly and sensitively and for asking such perceptive, wise questions. As Mr. Adrien told me when we had a moment to chat, violence in relationships remains a taboo topic -- and I agree with him that we need to discuss it to raise awareness.

I told one group I've been taking boxing lessons and how my coach constantly reminds me to "Protect yourself!" That's a message I want to pass on to young people, too. If you ever find yourselves in a dangerous relationship, get help. Don't try to pretend everything is fine, the way Iris does in my novel.

There was time for the classes to do a short writing exercise. I asked the students to write about a memory from when they were five years old. A student named Veronica wrote a beautiful piece about the Christmas after her grandpa died. She remembered receiving a doll she named Bella. But even the gift did not make Veronica's sadness go away. I told Veronica  I have a hunch she should be writing poetry. Go for it, Veronica!

A student named Kalvin remembered details about his kindergarten class. Kalvin described how the room "smelled like chicken fingers." As I told him, that detail really transports the reader to the classroom! Way to go, Kalvin!

An interesting coincidence: several students wrote about their memories of a beloved kindergarten teacher, Miss Simpson. Frankly, I feel as if I made Miss Simpson's acquaintance today because I read so much about her! One of the St. Lawrence Senior teachers told me she is friends with Miss Simpson, who recently retired from St. Lawrence's Junior Campus, and that she'll get her to read this blog entry. So, Miss Simpson, I want to tell you that you made a great impression on your former students -- and that they were a terrific audience today. You must be a special woman!

I asked one group to think of a word that starts with the letters "T" and "R" and that is essential to a story. The first student who picked up his hand suggested the word "Trying." It wasn't the word I had in mind, but I have to say I like it a lot! Characters definitely need to try! And when I asked the student who came up with this suggestion what his name was so I could include it here, guess what he answered?

TRistan!! (With a T and an R in case you did not notice!!)

Today's pic was taken with my 9 A.M. group -- but I must say you guys were all wonderful in different ways. Thanks for making my day fly by. Read, write, ask "What if?", rewrite, and protect yourselves! Thanks Miss Wendy for inviting me to St. Lawrence Academy Senior Campus and for hosting today's visit in your happy library!



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Visit to Brome Lake Books

I'm writing to you this morning from Knowlton in Quebec's Eastern Townships. It's a beautiful little town near Brome Lake and I'm here because yesterday I did a reading (and talk) at Brome Lake Books. My talk was part of the Quebec Writers' Federation's Writing Out Loud series.

I must say I had a surprisingly good turnout! Danny McAuley and Lucy Hoblyn, the lovely couple who own the bookstore, had set up a lot of chairs -- and most of them got taken. It also helped, of course, that Danny and Lucy supplied their own three sons for members of the audience!!


I was supposed to read from my new YA book, So Much It Hurts (and don't worry, I did), but because some of the audience members were a little young (and the subject of So Much It Hurts is a tough one -- violence in relationships), I also talked a little about some of my other books and shared some writing tips.

Danny is directing the play Sinbad, which will run Nov. 27 through Dec. 1 at the Brome Lake Theater. Many members of the audience are in the play. Danny let them finish a little early in exchange, I believe, for attending my reading. A young woman named Kira told me Danny had to cut short the dancing part of yesterday's rehearsal. "For some of us, dancing is not our forté!" Kira said.

I stayed around to chat and sign books after my talk. One of the women in the audience confided that when she was a teenager, she, too, had been in an abusive relationship. Her daughter who was with her knows the story of what happened to her mom. She explained that the sound of motorcycles still upsets her mom -- the young man who struck her had had a motorcycle.

I was very moved by that story. Since the book was only released recently, I'm just beginning to talk about all this in public. I wonder if other women will be telling me similar stories in the months to come. Talking about these things is difficult -- but I also know it's important.

A young man named Kenneth (that's him in today's pic) was also in the audience. He's the narrator as well as a Jedi Knight in Sinbad. Kenneth popped by to tell me he had made a decision. "I think I'm going to be a writer," he told me. "I want to write Medieval-Renaissance fiction."

So, what do you say, dear blog reader -- doesn't that sound like a pretty successful visit? Thanks, Danny and Lucy, for hosting me. Thanks to the kids and adults who came to listen. Thanks to the QWF for sending me to Knowlton. For tickets to Sinbad, telephone 450-242-2510!

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My Rina Singh

A little more than 30 years ago, I took the metro home with a fellow student. We were both doing our MA degrees at Concordia University -- she in Creative Writing, me in English Lit. On the surface, we had little in common. Rina Singh grew up in Ambala, in the north of India. I had spent my entire life in Montreal. Rina is Sikh; I am Jewish. She has straight black hair; I've got a mop of blonde curls.

And yet... something magical happened. We became close friends and have remained close friends all these years. And though other friends have influenced and supported me in my journey to become an author, Rina is the one to whom I owe the greatest debt.

Rina told me about an organization called CANSCAIP, of which I am still a loyal member. She told me I had to go to a conference, held in Toronto every November, called Packaging Your Imagination, organized by CANSCAIP. I listened to her -- and it helped.

Rina is also the one who cheered me on when I was first submitting manuscripts to publishers. When I phoned to tell her -- by then Rina had moved to Toronto, where she still lives -- that I had been rejected by yet another publisher, this time with a long letter explaining what the publisher liked and didn't like about my submission, Rina was the one who said, "That's great news!" And when I felt like giving up, Rina brought me a little glass statue of Ganesh, the Hindu god who is known to help people overcome obstacles. That Ganesh is still sitting next to my computer as I write this.

Rina's writing career was booming long before mine ever began. She is the author of six books for children, the most recent of which are Nearly Nonsense and Guru Nanak

This weekend, Rina and her husband made the long drive to Montreal to come and celebrate the launch of my new YA novel, So Much It Hurts. You may know the book is based on a dark chapter in my own life -- and Rina was the friend with whom I was closest during this difficult time. She helped me dig myself out of a dark sad hole.

We spent a day this weekend working together -- comparing notes, discussing story ideas, looking at outlines of our upcoming projects. I didn't tell you but Rina began her writing career as a poet. She published her first collection of poems in India when she was still in her twenties. Maybe that's why she speaks in a poetic way. (She is also very funny... one more reason why I love her.) "How did you do it?" Rina asked about So Much It Hurts. And then she answered her own question in a way that was smart and also made me laugh, "By doing it!" she said.

Rina also made a wonderful observation about outlines. I showed her my newest outline and how I've scribbled all over it. "Outlines," said Rina, "are living documents."

Anyway, now maybe you will understand why I feel so lucky to have Rina for a friend. Dear blog reader, I wish that you, too, find a friend who understands and accepts you, who supports your dreams, who shares her own struggles and dreams with you -- and makes you laugh.






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It's Not Every Day I Get To Go To Texas!

Okay, okay, I'll admit it -- I didn't really GO to Texas. Not in the flesh anyway. But I did get to do two wonderful Skype visits with students at Dumas Intermediate School.

The students have been doing a six-week unit on the Holocaust and were familiar with my novel, What World Is Left. So I had the pleasure of talking to them about this book, which is so very close to my heart since it is based on my mum's experience during the Holocaust.

The students were terrific. Both groups listened carefully and sensitively, and the students had terrific smart questions.

I did the first Skype session from my home, but I did the afternoon session from my parents' house -- which meant the students got to meet today's real star: my mum!

I tried to explain to the students why stories mean so much to me and how, even though I am a bit of a speed demon, I slow down for stories -- especially ones that make my arms tingle! I also talked about the power of secrets and encouraged those students who have grandparents to get their grandparents' stories. (Sometimes, grandparents are more open with their grandkids than they are with their own kids.)

Two students this morning asked questions I was unable to answer -- but I told them I'd ask their questions to my mum and report back on what she had to say. So, here goes! Liliana asked, "Did your mother ever come close to losing hope?" I would have predicted my mother would have said yes to that question, but when I asked her, her immediate response was, "No! Never!" Daniela had another tough question. She asked, "Did your mother ever regret being a Jew?" My mother answered yes to that question. As I explained to the students, she was only a couple of years older than them when she was first sent to a Nazi concentration camp. She once told me that she was called "dirty Jew" so many times that she really thought she was a "dirty Jew"! Even writing that makes me sad -- but I think it's important to know these things. If we know them, perhaps we can help prevent them from ever happening again.

Just seeing the students' open, kind faces moved me. I read from the book to both groups, and I noticed how still the audience was, how hard they were concentrating. I know the kids clapped for me at the end of my presentations, but really, they deserved the applause.

I feel a little bad that the morning group didn't get to say hello to my mum, so I'll do my best to arrange another quick visit one of these days from my parents' house. I think it meant a lot to my mum to know that the next generation is interested in the experience of those who survived the Holocaust. Remember what she told you: that you must never give up hope. And remember what I told you: that life requires courage, and that a sense of humour -- even in difficult times -- can be a sign of courage.

Thanks to Rhonda Artho and Cathy Craigmiles and everyone else who helped organize today's Skype visits. Now I need to find myself a way to come and meet you all in person!!!


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Home Away from Home: Riverdale High School

Today, I was back with Mrs. Scott's Grade Nine English class at Riverdale High School. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that I am working with Mrs. Scott's class on a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation educational program called Libres comme l'art. I tell the students all about what it's like to write a book and they give me input on the book I'm writing. Let's just say, for me, it's a heavenly arrangement.

Usually, the writing part of my life is a solitary endeavor. Often, I finish a chapter and read it out loud to myself (which is a good trick, but let's be honest, it's a little sad!!) Today, I read Chapters 4 and 5 to the class and... I'm very proud to tell you that when I finished reading, a student named Sarah called out, "That's good!" (Sarah, you totally made my day.)

Of course the students also had useful criticisms. Liam pointed out that I'd called a place the Old Mission Brewery when it is actually the Old Brewery Mission. Thanks for catching that, Liam. In one paragraph, I described what a teenage boy might do if he was home alone and Jared had a good suggestion: that he might blast the sound system. That goes in the book, Jared!

My favourite moment came, however, when I was explaining how I was still grappling with one big problem in my story: the motivation behind an adult's mistreatment of one of the teenagers in the story. I asked the students to jot down their ideas ... so it was kind of a group brainstorming exercise. And guess what? I walked around the room, peeking at the answers the students were coming up with ... AND ONE OF THEM WAS PERFECT!! Special thanks to Jordana, who helped me solve the problem that's been bugging me for a couple of weeks.

In all, I'm doing seven visits with Mrs. Scott's class, but I have to admit: I'm getting hooked on working with these kids. It's true I sometimes have to shush them, give them a stern look, and even stop speaking for a while (hard for someone like me to do!!), while I wait for them to quiet down... but when it comes to bright ideas, these students sure have them.

Thanks to everyone involved in the project for making it happen -- my friends at Blue Met; Suzanne Nesbitt of the Lester B. Pearson School Board; Mr. Rampersad, my favourite principal; the wonderful librarian, Mrs. Strano; Mrs. Scott and Miss Chris; and especially the students. I've never had so much fun working on a book!

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Teaching (and Learning) at a Montreal Center for Homeless Women

This afternoon, photographer Monique Dykstra and I did our third writing and photography workshop at La Rue des Femmes, a Montreal center that provides support to women who are homeless.

Our work here is part of a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Before & After. The women's texts and photos will be included in a book that will be published in time for this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

My feelings about homelessness have changed a lot since we began working on this project in September. I have to admit that in the past, when I saw homeless people, I looked away. Having lunch in the community room at La Rue des Femmes, and working with some of the women on their writing has made me realize that these women are not all that different from me -- or my friend Monique. One difference, however, between us is that when I experienced my own hard times, I had family and friends to help me through. Most of the women at La Rue des Femmes are alone; many have lost everything.

I will never forget some of the poems and stories these women have produced. Two weeks ago, a woman wrote a poem about her pink sunglasses and how they protect her from "je ne sais quoi" (that's French for "I don't know what"). I can't get her poem out of my head -- which I think is proof of how powerful a writer she is.

This afternoon, a woman in our group wrote about what it's like to have nothing. I'm going to include a little of her poem here. When you read this excerpt, I think you will understand why I feel so privileged to be working on this project.


“My god, I don’t have anything.

But I don’t want to start accumulating things.

 I lost so much already,

I’m afraid I’m going to lose it all again.”


I think some readers may find this excerpt a little depressing. Perhaps it will help you to know that the woman who wrote it is working hard to rebuild her life. That she is courageous and smart. And that she was really proud of her poem.




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Writer Returns to Residence!

That's Kayla in today's pic. I photographed her READING MY NEW BOOK this morning at Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds.

As you may know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I'm writer-in-residence at Riverdale High School this year, thanks to a wonderful program called Libres Comme L'Art run by the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation.

I'm working on a story and I've got about 30 terrific assistants -- Mrs. Scott's class.

Today, I read the students Chapters 2 and 3 of the project and they seem to think it's coming along. Best of all, they've got all sorts of great suggestions. I've been telling the students how important it is for a writer to know her characters. Once you know your character, it's easier to figure out the plot since character tends to determine action. (That's a bit complicated, I know, but it's a really useful thing to consider when you are planning out a story.)

A student named Saba-Lou demonstrated that she really "got" this concept -- that's because she suggested that the main character, Jordie, might do a decent thing not so much to be decent but because he wants to impress the girl he likes. Saba-Lou, you are so right about that!

I divided students into groups and had them write notes about various scenes I want to include. One group came up with great DETAILS about their school auditorium where assemblies are held; another group worked on describing an incident that would lead to the students getting detentions, and one student wrote an account of what happens during Saturday morning detentions.

Hey, if you're one of Mrs. Scott's students reading this and you didn't hand in your notes at the end of class, can you give them to Mrs. Scott and I'll get her to mail them to me? I want to use as many of your ideas as possible as I continue writing the story.

I'll be back at Riverdale on November 5 -- with, if all goes well, two new chapters to share. Can't wait!






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The Moniques Go to the Maggies

Photographer Monique Dykstra and I are in the Magdalen Islands (commonly referred to by locals as "The Maggies"). We're here to work on Quebec Roots, an educational project offered by the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation.

We're working with Kim Clark's students at Grosse-Ile School. They're going to be producing a chapter for this year's edition of a book called Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live.

Monique is doing her photography workshop now -- so I have a little time to write this blog entry.

The group has decided to write about and photograph the sea and how it defines life here in Grosse-Ile. This morning, I did a little talk about writing and how stories are EVERYWHERE. I also gave the students a little writing exercise and I thought I'd share some of what they came up with.

Nicholas worked on piece about fishing. I loved his line: "I can hear the seagulls screaming for food." It's a simple sentence, but I think Nicholas's use of the word screaming really TAKES US THERE. (Those of you who know me will know that I'm often singing the words Take me there from the Staples Singers song.)

Courtney was describing the carved doors at the church in nearby Old Harry. She wrote: "You hear the soft prayers whisper from the rafters/ You talk to your lost ancestors -- the ones you miss." I told Courtney she is destined to be a writer!

And Lucas described people watching a shipwreck from shore, helpless, their faces "wet from tears and rain." Beautiful writing, don't you agree?

That's me looking over Lucas's shoulder in today's pic. 

Here's to the sea and to stories.... Thanks Kim for preparing your class so well. This is going to be a super chapter!

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Out for Dinner with a Clown!

I know what you're thinking -- where's the photographic evidence?

Alas, I left my camera at home. But last night, I really did have dinner with a clown -- a very smart, funny and kind one too!

My clown-friend's name is Aaron and I met him at the open house at the Ecole Nationale de Cirque here in Montreal. (He's in his second year at circus school.)

It was a working dinner (though we had fun, too). I had told Aaron that I'm writing a story set at a circus camp and there are two clowns in it. He kindly agreed to look over my clowning scenes -- and he had some super suggestions.

It's fun hanging out with a clown. For one thing, Aaron makes great funny faces. I took lots of notes so I could work some of that stuff into my manuscript. I also observed how physical clown humour is -- Aaron uses his body to make people laugh. He even told me that sometimes, when he's out with friends, he pretends to trip or bang into a wall -- just to see people's reactions. 

Aaron is the first clown in his family, though they've been supportive of his career ambitions. He says there's nothing like the feeling he gets when he makes a group of people laugh: "It's like a drug."

Next time I have dinner with Aaron I promise to take a picture. In the mean time, here's to fun research  -- and clever clowns!


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More News From Your Favourite Writer-in-Residence

Your favourite writer-in-residence? Why, that’s me, of course! Today, I was back at Riverdale High School, where I am working with one of Ms. Scott’s Grade Nine classes on a project called Libres comme l'art. I get to write a book and the students are my team of personal consultants! In return, I’m teaching them everything I know about how to “spin” a story into a book.  

Today was a big day because I’d written a first draft of Chapter 1. I handed round copies to the class, then read the chapter out loud. I have to admit – I was a little nervous. But you know what my favourite part was? When I got to the end of a page and I could hear the students flipping to the next one… I think they were curious to know more about my story. YIPPEE!

As I told the students, most writers I know write in a quiet room (or a noisy café) somewhere, and we rarely get reaction from our readers while we’re working on a story. So this was an exciting and inspiring first for me!

The class spent about an hour reacting to the chapter and giving me ideas for how to proceed with the story. Our focus was on developing individual characters. I explained to the students that the best fiction tends to be character-driven, meaning that once an author really knows his characters, then the plot becomes a function of the various characters’ feelings, thoughts, actions and reactions. We also talked about the role of foils in literature – how it helps when characters are different from each other.

Jared, one of the liveliest students in the group, thinks I should name one of the characters Logan – which happens to be Jared’s last name. When Matthew was speaking, I decided that maybe I’ll use him as the physical model for my protagonist – Matthew has blue-ish-grey eyes, light brown hair, the beginnings of a moustache and a scrape on his elbow!

And I got another idea for the book when Ms. Scott was mentioning Saturday morning detentions! (I’d never heard of Saturday morning detentions before.) That inspired me to do some research of my own. Fortunately for me, several of the students had had Saturday morning detentions. Kelly got one for missing two previous detentions (it all started when she didn’t get her French test signed). Here’s Kelly’s description of what the detention was like: “It was in the gym. There were a lot of people. You could read, but you couldn’t put your head down. I cried for half of it.” Hey, Kelly, I’m sorry you had such a bad time at detention – but look at the bright side… now you have a story to tell. And your story has inspired your favourite writer-in-residence.

I won’t see the class for a few weeks. In the meantime, I’ve got my own homework to do: I want to write Chapter 2 for them – and produce an outline for my story. Hopefully when Ms. Scott’s students hear more of my story, they’ll still want to keep turning those pages!!

PS: Lots of people to thank for making this project possible, but today, here's a special shout-out to Riverdale librarian Sue Strano. If you go to Riverdale and you're looking for a book to read, talk to Mrs. Strano. She's an expert at matching readers with books! Thanks, Mrs. Strano, for sharing your library with me for the Libres comme l'art project.


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The Moniques Visit Mackay Centre Satellite Class

The Moniques are back in action!

That means photographer Monique Dykstra (that's her in the white T-shirt) and I are teamed up again to work on a couple of terrific projects offered through the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation.

One of those projects is called Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. Teams of writers and photographers (like the Moniques!) will be visiting a number of Quebec schools, helping students to use words and photographs to describe their community. Participating students' work will appear in a book, an e-book and will even be exhibited at the 2014 Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

We spent today with an amazingly wonderful group of students from the Mackay Centre's Satellite Class. Their teacher is Sebastian Piquette. Sebastian teaches nine students, all of whom are physically handicapped. He is assisted by several other educators, all as committed and kind as Sebastian.

I started the day by telling a few stories (when am I NOT telling stories?!) and then Monique D talked about her life as a photographer and looked at some photos with the class so they could learn what makes a photograph work.

Every time I work with Monique D, I learn something, too! Today, she told the class, "A photograph has to tell a story!" I was so excited I nearly cheered when she said that. I'd never seen photos as storytelling devices until Monique said that.

One of our main goals of the day was to help students decide on a theme for their chapter. We brainstormed until we came up with a topic that everyone in the room voted for: what it's like to be in a wheelchair. It's interesting that one of the young men in the class, Jamie, is not in a wheelchair, but because so many of his friends are, he feels he, too, has lots to write (and photograph!!) about the subject.

There was time for writing and I was impressed and moved by what the students came up with. Here's a little preview. I got to work with Abdullah, who wrote, "My wheelchair is like my brother sort of. In real life, my little brother gets on my nerves sometimes, but I like him." And Justin wrote about going to a funeral, describing the frustration of being unable to take the stairs that led into the church. He came up with a lovely description of the stairs, calling them "zigzag stairs."

I am eager to see what else the students come up with. I predict that not only will they learn a lot about writing and photography by participating in this project, but they're also going to teach readers (including us) a lot about what it is like to use a wheelchair.

Thanks to all of you in the class, and to Sebastian and the other educators. The Moniques feel privileged to be working with you!!


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Notes from a Lucky Author

I'm a lucky author because, as you may know if you've been keeping up with my blog, I'm writer-in-residence this year at Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds. I'm there as part of an exciting project called Libres comme l'art.

Let me get right to the lucky part: I get to work with one of Ms. Scott's Grade 9 classes. Together, we're brainstorming for a story I'm going to write. Today I was there for 80 minutes, and frankly, it felt like 10! That's because the students had so many interesting things to say. A special shout-out to Saba-lou and Fahad, who were both on the quiet side during my last visit, but were major contributors to this morning's discussion.

Last week, I gave the class homework: either to write about their experience with an autistic child (or adult), or else to tell me the story of an object that has significance to them. I just read their pieces and many were amazing. Shayne, who has taught swimming to autistic kids, shared his observation that one of the boys he worked with "doesn't ever keep eye contact" and prefers to "keep a routine." Awaiz wrote about a bracelet his mom received when she was growing up in Pakistan. My favourite part of Awaiz's piece was when he described how hard his mom had to work every day after school: "She had to sweep clean the house, milk the cows and study! She never really had time to play."

I'll see Ms. Scott's class again next Tuesday. I've promised them that by then, I'll have written a rough first draft of my Chapter One. (To be honest, I'm a little nervous since I want it to be really good!!)

The deal is: the students give me lots of great ideas and they'll respond to my story as I write it. In return, I'm going to teach them everything I know about writing a book.

So, can you see why I feel lucky?

PS: For Ms. Scott's students: the author who told me "All writing is problem solving" is Joel Yanofsky. His book about raising an autistic child is called Bad Animals.

PSS: Thanks to the wonderful Suzanne Nesbitt for being there today, for helping get Riverdale in on the project -- and for taking today's pic!


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Monique Goes to Madison, Wisconsin... well, kind of!

It does sound cool to say, "I spent the afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin!" And I did... kind of!

That's because I did a Skype visit to the Mystery to Me bookstore there. The visit was arranged by my friend and fellow author Elise Moser, who divides her time between Madison and Montreal. Elise was at the bookstore to read from her beautiful new YA novel Lily and Taylor. And I had a chance to read from my newest YA title, So Much It Hurts.

Both of our books deal with violence in a relationship. Elise's novel starts off with a haunting autopsy scene. The first line of the book is one that readers will not be able to forget: "They stuffed her brain into her chest."

In the question and answer period that followed our readings, Elise explained that her book started as a short story and that the trigger for it was a friend who did an internship at a morgue. I love hearing about how novels are inspired by real life moments.

It was also exciting that two young readers -- Izzie and Celia -- were at the reading. Both girls read our novels and had insightful comments about them. 

So Much It Hurts is based on a dark chapter in my own life and I was glad that I was able to stay calm while I read. To be honest, the hardest part was seeing the audience's reaction. One woman covered her eyes while I was reading. Which makes me wonder about telling difficult stories. I think it's important to do, but there is a part of me that feels a little sorry about upsetting my readers.

Big thanks to Elise for bringing me to Madison (next time I'm coming in person! I hear it's an amazing city!) and to Joanne Berg, who owns Mystery to Me. Sharing stories -- even difficult ones -- is a bit like Skype itself, bringing us closer to others, even when they are far away.

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Guess who the new writer-in-residence is at Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds?

You're looking at her!

Today was my first day working with -- and meeting -- one of Mrs. Scott's Grade Nine English classes at Riverdale. There are 32 students in the group, and even the school principal, Mr. Rampersad (who loves to read!), came to listen to my introductory talk. FUN!

I'll be making seven visits to the school thanks to a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project called Libres comme l'art. Other organizations such as the Conseil des arts de Montréal and Cré are also involved in making the project possible.

Working on Libres comme l'art means I get to do something I love to do: write a book. But what's extra special is that I'll be writing this book with the help of 32 special assistants -- Mrs. Scott's students!

I had a little over an hour with the students today and we reviewed some of the basics -- how important it is for writers to read and write, why stories matter, and why some stories give people like me (and hopefully you!) goosebumps.

It looks like one of the characters in our story is going to be autistic. This means that the students and I will be researching autism and what it feels like to be an autistic student in our school system.

As you can imagine, interesting things happen when you put together a lot of brains. A student named Shayne told us that over the summer, he worked as a swimming instructor and some of his students were autistic. I'm hoping we'll learn more about Shayne's experience. Hamza suggested we include a hate letter in our story -- similar to a hate letter that made the news a few weeks ago when it was sent to the mom of an autistic child in Ontario. Good thinking, Hamza! Sabrina is in the cadets and she told us that there, autistic youngsters have integration aides or shadows -- which made me think it would be great to include an integration aide in our story. And I want to tell you about another student named Shane (no y in this one's name) who came up with a line that I thought would make a great opening line in a book. Here it is: "You can look at it from a distance, but don't touch!" Doesn't that line intrigue you? Which is, of course, what an opening line has to do.

Do I sound excited about being the writer-in-residence at Riverdale? It's because I am! I can hardly wait to read the story that comes out of this seriously cool project!

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Technicalities and the Personal Essay

Over the last two days, I have been working on a personal essay about the connection I find between running and writing.
Yesterday morning, I ran my husband to the bus stop, and as I often do, I discussed my latest writing pickle: how I was going to begin the essay.

My husband is a good person to discuss such matters with -- he's an editor at the Montreal Gazette, the local English daily here in Montreal. But yesterday, he was even better than usual.

Here's why:

I explained that I was thinking of starting my essay with the line, "I write and run every single day." But then I explained to him what the pickle was: I do write every single day (that's because, for years, I have started my days with three pages in my journal), but technically, I don't run every day. I exercise every day -- sometimes that means I lift weights at the Y or go to my boxing lesson instead. So my question was kind of technical, "Do you think I can start with that line anyhow -- even if there are days that I don't run?"

My husband thought about it for a few moments and then he told me he didn't think I should go with that beginning. He said, "Come up with a different lead altogether. If you're going to start off with something that isn't true, you're going to alienate yourself from your writing."
As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. I went home and re-worked the beginning. I came up with something that was just as good as what I'd had before -- but which was 100 per cent true. And I think coming up with a truer beginning led to a better piece of writing.

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An Afternoon at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre

Last weekend, I was one of a room-full of participants at a book fair held at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. The event was a way of introducing the public to memoirs and in my case, a novel, inspired by real-life stories from the Holocaust. Many of the presenters were older people, Holocaust survivors who understand how important it is to share their experiences with the next generation.

I have to admit I did feel a little like I was flogging my wares at a flea market! That's because we presenters sat at long tables, each of us with a small pile of our own books for sale. (Let's just say I far prefer writing books to having to sell them personally!)

But it was good to see familiar faces in the local writing community, and also to meet new ones. It turned out that my books and I were sitting next to Brenda Spigelman-Ajzenkopf. Brenda is the author of a poetry collection called Secondhand Shoes (Shoreline). Until her recent retirement, Brenda worked as a secretary in the social work department at the Jewish General Hospital. It was there she discovered that she enjoyed and had a talent for writing. "I wrote poems for parties," Brenda told me.

Brenda's parents were Polish Jews. She was born in Munich, shortly after World War II. My mum, also a Holocaust survivor, never told me about her wartime experiences until I began doing the research for my 2008 YA novel, What World Is Left. Brenda's parents were more open about what they had gone through. I asked Brenda what made her write her poems and she told me: "I had to get it out. I had it in me for so many years. I never thought about what I would do with it."

Brenda's husband, Hymie Ajzenkopf, is also the child of Holocaust survivors. He was born ten days after the liberation of Poland. Like his wife, he, too, is recently retired. I hope that means we'll get to read his story too!




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Dear Katherine D (Part I)

You must be wondering who Katherine D is.

Well, here's what I know: she is smart, a fine writer, and will be starting high school in Montreal this fall. Also she was at a camp this summer, where she met Emily, one of my former students... and they got to talking about writing and books for kids. Then Katherine D sent me an email, asking all sorts of good questions about writing -- so I thought, rather than answering in a private email, I would use her questions as the basis of a series of blog entries.

Katherine's first question had to do with finding a publisher and getting published. Just about every aspiring author has this question on his or her mind... but it's a little soon to worry about that. First comes the writing -- and lots of it!!

So, I'm skipping to Katherine's second question, and here, I'll quote from Katherine's email so you can see for yourself what a talented writer she is: "Next, characters: after a good story, they're the most important thing. How do I make them fleshed out, and interesting? Trust me, I hate dull, useless characters that are boring as beige paint."

Don't you like the bit about the "beige paint"? I do!!

Okay, so here come my anti-beige paint tips!

First of all, you really need to know your characters. You need to feel them inside you -- as if they are real people. You need to see them and hear them, not to mention smell them! An exercise I do with my creative writing students that you may find useful is to make a long long list of questions -- and answer them for each of your characters. How old is she? What colour hair does she have? Who's her best friend? What's her relationship like with her mom? What does she have nightmares about? .... Get the idea?

Perhaps most important of all is the character's voice, especially if you are writing in the first person (which I happen to like and recommend). Is your character cheerful or crabby? Hopeful or cynical? Naive or experienced... or something in between?

Here's another tip you might find useful -- look through magazines or brochures ... and try to find pictures that make you think of your character(s). I've even heard of authors who make bulletin boards using all the little clippings they can find that remind them of their characters.

Especially important questions to ask about your character(s): what does she most want? what does she most fear? what obstacles prevent her from getting what she wants?

All right then, Katherine D., I hope I've given you some tips you'll find useful for developing characters in your stories. My main advice is simple and it's just one word: WRITE! Write a lot, write often. I know I can't stop.

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First Review of So Much It Hurts

I've heard some writers say they do not read reviews of their own work. I don't think I could do it.

Seven years ago, my book All In got a savage review in Quill & Quire, widely considered the top journal in the Canadian book industry. One of my friends, author Elaine Kalman Naves (I mention her because she's going to turn up again in today's blog entry) advised me not to read the review. So I didn't -- at least not for several years. (By the way, I feel compelled to tell you that the book was later shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Crime-Writing Prize, and has been published in French by Courte Echelle. See! Even the fact that I told you all that shows I haven't quite recovered from the sting.)

Now back to Elaine... she is also the friend who once told me, "A writer needs a thin skin to be sensitive to the world around her (or him); but a writer also needs a thick skin to deal with the business of writing." Great advice, don't you agree? Only sometimes it's a little tricky to implement....

Like today when I learned that Quill & Quire reviewed my latest novel, So Much It Hurts, in their July/August issue....

Could I be one of those writers who ignores reviews? I didn't think so.

Could I have a thin skin and a thick skin at the same time? I hoped so.

It turns out that Quill & Quire's Liane Shaw gave my book a thumbs up. Here's what she had to say about it: "So Much It Hurts provides a detailed anatomy of a young girl's descent into the nightmare of an abusive relationship that is both accessible and thought provoking." 

Every book an author writes means a lot to the author. How couldn't it? We spend months, sometimes years, working on our stories. Because So Much It Hurts was inspired by true events, it's extra close to my heart. Over the next few months, reviews of the book will be rolling in. In the mean time, I will work on keeping my skin thin and thick... and on continuing to tell more stories.

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Secrets Make Good Stories

"Do you want to hear a secret?"

Can you imagine ever saying no to that question? Today's entry is a link to an essay I just wrote for the Quebec Writers' Federation about secrets and stories. Check it out here.

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Things a Writer Can Learn At Circus Camp

Lucky me! I got to spend this morning at the Ecole Nationale de Cirque's circus camp. I am researching a story about circus camp for the Montreal Gazette -- and I also happen to be working on a new novel set at... okay, you guessed it... circus camp!

In case you're wondering, that is not me doing a backwards flip into a pit of foam cubes!

I was sitting on a chair taking notes and generally trying to behave myself.

So, what can a writer learn from circus camp?

Sometimes, you have to take a flying leap.

And as Adrian Martinez, the acrobatics instructor who was working with the group of kids I was watching, told me: "These kids are very talented, but they need work. It's not only talent that matters, but also hard work."

Same goes for writing, no?

I'm going back next week for a second visit, and to watch some of the kids doing their routines.

Most of the time, being a writer is hard work, but some days ... well, you get to go to the circus!

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Meet My Friend Picture Book Author Jennifer Lloyd... and her mum

I am just home from Jennifer Lloyd's double book launch! It's a rainy day here in Montreal, but it felt sunny inside Livres Babar's Pointe-Claire store. 

Jennifer's two new picture books are Murilla Gorilla and The Best Thing About Kindergarten (Simply Read Books), both of which got glowing reviews in this week's New York Times! Talk about exciting!

The first person I met when I walked into the bookstore was Jennifer's mom, Nancy (that's the two of them in today's pic). Like Jennifer, Nancy is a modest person. She credited her husband, Douglas, for Jennifer's creativity. "He was writing all the time," she said. But it turns out that Nancy deserves some credit, too. A longtime children's librarian, she read out loud to her three kids every night. "On Friday afternoons," Nancy said, "we'd go to the Beaconsfield Library and load up on books. We spent weekends on a farm. My husband would ask, 'Don't you kids want to play in the barn?' They just wanted their books!"

Even though Jennifer was very busy signing books this afternoon, she didn't mind when I interrupted with a question. (Jennifer is a kindergarten teacher so she is used to interruptions!!) I wanted to know if she had a writing tip for you, dear blog reader. And she did. Here's what Jennifer had to say: "Keep trying. You never know how things are going to work out. It takes so much persistence." Thanks for a great tip, Jennifer, and thanks, too, for your great books -- and your big heart!


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Meet My Friend Constantina Kalimeris

My friend Constantina Kalimeris happens to be the illustrator of a lovely fable for all ages called The Apple in the Orchard. 

I phoned Constantina (she lets me call her "Tina" and I let her call me "Mo"!) to ask her a little about the work she did to produce the illustrations for the book. To be honest, I was hoping that what she'd tell me about illustrating would have some overlap with the writing process -- and it did!

So here's what Constantina told me.

Like authors, illustrators, too, need to do a lot of research. "I spent about a month doing research on the anatomy of apple trees," Constantina said. For the book, she needed to illustrate three kinds of apple trees: a pale green, a red harvest, as well as orchard trees. I got very excited when Constantina explained, "I had to give them each a character." (The reason I got excited is that this is EXACTLY what authors have to do, too. What's a story without characters -- or in Constantina's case, trees -- who come alive?) In The Apple in the Orchard, Brave Apple can only grow by taking a risk and leaving Pale Green. Only then can Brave Apple join the thriving orchard.

The Apple in the Orchard is self-published. Constantina worked closely with the book's author, Sonia Di Maulo, founder of Harvest Performance. I asked Constantina how she feels when she sees the finished product (I have a copy and it is a beautiful book). Here's her answer: "I feel a big sense of pride. It's my first book. Collaborating helped me evolve. But most of all, this book has defined my style."

If you want to have a look at the book, or order a copy, visit the link I've included at the top of this blog entry. Now I've got to go... writing this blog entry made me hungry for an APPLE!


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Guess Who's Been Sleeping On Our Futon!

No, it isn't Goldilocks who came to Montreal and slept on our futon (not too hard, not too soft... just right!).

It's Christie Harkin, publisher and children's editor at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, a Toronto-based publishing house. 

Like me, Christie was speaking yesterday at the Imagine A Story conference, organized by YesouiCanscaip, and held at Dawson College here in Montreal.

So, not only did I get to hear Christie speak (together with Toronto literary agent Patricia Ocampo), I also had the pleasure of Christie's company over the weekend.

And because, dear blog reader, I am always thinking of YOU, after supper last night (prepared by my husband, hey thanks, Mike!), I took out my pen and notepad and asked Christie whether she had something clever to say that I could share here. "Say, 'Monique has a chocolate drawer!'" Christie answered. But I knew, dear blog reader, you'd want more than that! So I asked Christie to tell me what, for her, makes a manuscript jump out from the slush-pile (the industry term for the pile of manuscripts that arrives every week in a publishing office).

Christie's answer surprised -- and pleased me.

Here's what she said:

"One thing I look for when I acquire any kind of children's book is one sentence or phrase or paragraph that just makes me stop. If I find more than one of those beautiful sentences, I'll find a way to make the book work," she said.

Then Christie gave me an example of what she meant. When she was reading a manuscript by Natalie Hyde, she stopped at the line, "But there will be cake." That manuscript became the novel Saving Armpit, one of Fitzhenry & Whiteside's greatest successes.

I'd say there's a message there for all writers at every stage of our careers: we need to give readers (and editors) lines that will make them stop...

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"Just Kidding" -- Report from Kuujjuaq

Hello dear blog readers!

Today, I am writing to you again from Kuujjuaq in Nunavik, a region in Quebec's far north.

I'm here with my friend, Thomas Kneubuhler, an artist who works with photography. We are spending the week with Cyril's Sec. V students at Jaanimmarik School, helping them put together a chapter for the next edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live, a book that will be published thanks to the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation. 

The reason why I called today's blog entry "Just kidding" is that that is one of the expressions Cyril's students use most. Especially the girls like Lucina and Sianna. Often, after they say something really SMART, they add, "Just kidding!"

The students are writing and shooting photos that have to do with meeting-up places in their community. I've been teaching them how to use details in their writing, how to make readers laugh and cry, and how to transport readers to Kuujjuaq! But perhaps most importantly, I want to teach these young people to trust their own voices.

One small happy moment came for me when I was putting the words, "In the old days" on the blackboard and one of the guys called out to say they'd never use that expression: "We'd say 'back in the day.'" You can't imagine how quickly I erased "In the old days" and replaced it with "Back in the day"! It does sound way better, don't you think?!

This morning, one of the students wrote about how, for him, going to the gym is more about having a healthy lifestyle than meeting people. He wrote about how he used to drink too much. Here's my favourite line from his piece: "I started to notice that people were treating me like I was a joke." Do you see what I mean about voice here? Just reading the words gives you a sense of the lovely intelligent young man who wrote them.

I have one more thing to tell you in today's blog entry! Last night, we went to the movie theater at the town hall for a special screening of the documentary Urban Inuk, made by Inuk filmmaker Jobie Weetaluktuk, The movie is about three Inuit living in Montreal. Two of them have it really rough; the third turned her life around and is now helping other Inuit in the south.

What made the night extra-special is that Jobie was there for the screening! He talked about the challenges of being a filmmaker. "I've made five films. I always say this will be the last one," he told the audience. But then he admitted that he can't stop being creative! "It's hard to give up," he said. And then he laughed -- a wonderful warm Inuk-style laugh that comes from working through hard times and still being able to find humour and joy. Can you tell why I love it up here so much?

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"Ai" from Kuujjuaq!

I'm in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, where people say "Ai" instead of "Hi".

I'm here with my friend photographer Thomas Kneubuhler (that's him in the black T-shirt). We'll be here until Friday, working with Cyril's Sec. V students at Jaanimmarik School. We're helping the students use words and images to produce a chapter in the next edition of a book called Quebec Roots: The Place Where We Live. The project is part of the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation's educational program.

We left Montreal at 10 this morning, and by 2 P.M., we were in the school library, working with our students. They've decided to do their chapter about meeting places in their community, so we began making plans to do some writing research and a photo-shooting field trip together tomorrow. Also, I did a short talk about how I became an author and told the students what writing means to me -- EVERYTHING!

I have noticed that every time I hang out with a photographer, I learn about writing too! So here's what I learned today -- Thomas asked a really good question, "When there are so many photos around us, why take more?" and then he answered his own question by saying, "We want to make photos that matter." I decided the same is true about writing. Writing has to matter.

Authors and writing teachers often advise, "Write about what you know." Thomas said something similar to the students today about photography: "If you're close to something, you can take very good photos. You have access."

So, here's to writing -- and photographing -- what you know. If you are reading this and you're one of the students at Jaanimmarik that we are working with this week, we look forward to reading your stories and seeing your photographs!

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In the Mood for a Book? Need the Perfect Recommendation?

If you're in the mood for a book, but you need the perfect recommendation... I have just the solution to your dilemma.

Check out The Book Dumpling. It's a website "curated" by my friend and kindred spirit, Andrea Borod. Andrea has been teaching English at Lower Canada College here in Montreal for five years. But she's been recommending books for a lot longer than that! (I happen to know this personally since every time Andrea and I meet up, we always talk about books and I always enjoy her recommendations.)

Visitors to The Book Dumpling can fill out a short questionnaire and Andrea will send along her customized book recommendations. Since Andrea launched her website a week ago, she's recommended books to more than 400 people. Talk about spreading the word!

I asked Andrea why she thinks books are important. Here's what she told me: "The number one reason is that books create empathy. They make you see the world in a way you didn't before. Or they give voice to something you thought, but would never express."

I also like and totally agree with Andrea's philosophy that, "Everyone's a reader. Even if they don't know it yet."

By the way, in case you're wondering (as I was) why Andrea came up with the name "Book Dumpling," there is a perfectly logical explanation: Andrea's boyfriend calls her his dumpling! Andrea also explained that she likes when two words that don't usually go together (think "book" and "dumpling") are combined.

So what are you waiting for, dear blog reader? Go visit The Book Dumpling!


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One of Those Schools that Feels Like Home...


Hello hello dear blog reader,

Today I visited Heritage Regional High School -- one of the Montreal-area schools I know so well it feels like home.

If you've been following my blog, you will know I was there last month with my friend, photographer Monique Dykstra, to work with Mary Eva's Sec. IV class on a project called Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. Mrs. Eva's class is producing a chapter that will be published next spring in a book -- part of a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation project in which students from across the province use photos and images to describe their communities. Mrs. Eva's class is focusing on the subject of rules.

Though I did spend my break working with Mrs. Eva's students, helping them edit their writing so it is as clear and crisp as possible, I spent most of the day with Norma Hubbard's two Sec. IV classes. Mrs. Hubbard wanted me to talk about my life as a writer -- in the hope that it might inspire her students as they gear up to work on their final English exam. That's me with Mrs. Hubbard and some of her students in today's second pic.

Of course, you must be wondering about the pic at the top of this page! It's a photo I took of a student named Mika's agenda book. She painted over the own, making her own unique design. And as I explained to Mrs. Hubbard's classes, we writers are always on the look-out for cool DETAILS to add to our stories. And wouldn't you know it ... the book I'm currently re-writing has a girl-artist for its protagonist. And guess what I'm giving her first thing tomorrow? Mika's agenda book -- grimacing skull and all! So hey, thanks Mika!

A student named Anthony told me he is an aspiring song writer. He told us that one of his friends advised him, "Just write. Don't think about the fact that you're writing a song." I think that's good advice -- especially for a first draft. Though I have never written a song, I suspect that re-writing plays an important role in the world of music too!

A special shout-out to Katherine for bringing me my book bag (and for your bright smile), and to Anthony for returning me to Mrs. Eva's classroom -- even though he wasn't sure where it was!

Good luck on exams, you guys! Thanks Mrs. Hubbard and Mrs. Eva for bringing me to your school. Thanks Mrs. Hubbard for the lily (that's what I'm holding in the picture below), and thanks Mrs. Eva for the fun door-to-door service.

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"When I read a book, it feels like I'm the main character"

The title of today's blog entry ("When I read a book, it feels like I'm the main character") comes from Hargagan, a sixth grade student at St. Lawrence Senior Academy in Lasalle, Quebec.

I met Hargagan and several other sixth graders from the school at lunch time today, when I went to do a talk for the school's book club. The talk was organized by my friend (and former student!), librarian Wendy Corner.

I loved what Hargagan had to say about reading. Not only because it happens to me, too, when I read a book, but also because that feeling of identifying with your main character also happens when you WRITE A BOOK!

It was fun to get to work with students who are hooked on reading. We discussed the links between writing and reading (how both activities provide a safe place when the world goes a little crazy around us) and I also told the students how I get ideas for my books.

A student named William told us that his great-grandfather's 90th birthday is coming up this weekend and that his great-grandfather was a parachutist during World War II. That sure sounds to me like an amazing story and I urged William to interview his great-grandfather. (I told him I always try to get my interview subjects to have a cup of tea with me... it literally warms them up!)

A student named Connor seems to be whipping through my latest book, Pyro. In fact, at one point, I caught Connor sneaking a peak at the text!

So, if you're a member of the S.L.S.A. book club who happens to be reading today's blog entry, thanks for being fun, interested and smart! And thank Wendy for another great invite! (Someone should do a story about a librarian with a green thumb, who has such a big plant it's taking over the library!!)

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Igniting Another Writing Fire

Hello hello, dear blog readers!

I'm just home from an exciting morning at Westmount Library, where I did another "Ignite Your Writing Fire" workshop with Grade Seven students from Selwyn House and Miss Edgar's & Miss Cramps's School. The activity was part of this year's Blue Metropolis Children's Literary Festival.

Both schools are close enough to the library that the students were able to walk  over -- maybe that helped get them in the mood for my presentation. We started with a short discussion of body language (how to hold your pencil in a way that makes you look studious!) and how writers need to SHOW not TELL. (Body language happens to be a great way to show important information about your characters. Here's an example of body language -- check out today's pic... you can tell by the way I am LEANING IN that I was really interested in what this student had written!)

I also explained how writers need to ask themselves the question WHAT IF? in order to advance a story's plot. Sivan, a Miss Edgar's and Miss Cramps's student told me, "I think 'What if?' all the time." A Selwyn House student named Hamza had many good questions for me. I talked a little about my novel What World Is Left and how it deals, among other things, with the question of propaganda art. Hamza wanted to know how drawings can lie. I told him that the father in the book is forced by the Nazis to make drawings of happy scenes (for instance, people lounging in a café) in the concentration camp -- even though there was no real café in the concentration camp.

Another student from Selwyn House, Ben, told me he has a collection of apology notes that he seems to have written to just about every staff member at the school! "Every letter has a story in it," Ben said. I suggested that package of apology notes just might make a great idea for a story.

Okay, I'm off to my own students now at Marianopolis College. Thanks to Wendy Wayling, the terrific children's librarian at the Westmount Library, for getting today's event organized. Thanks to the students and teachers who participated, and to the others who joined the audience, including two of my own students (Maria took  photos for me -- thanks!) and my good friend Katherine Walsh. 

Remember: TROUBLE makes good stories, but STAY OUT OF IT! And SHOW; DON'T TELL. And one more thing: NEVER EVER GIVE UP (even if your own dad tells you to!).

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Ignite Your Writing Fire!

Hope you like the title of today's blog entry! That's because Ignite Your Writing Fire! is the title of the presentation I did this morning at the Montreal Children's Library, Atwater branch. 

It's a big week here in Montreal: the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival kicked off today and runs through April 29. My events at the library was one of the several writing workshops I'll be doing this week with kids at the festival.

Most of this morning's audience was made up of Grades Five and Six students from Westmount Park School. I know I shouldn't pick favourites, but well, sometimes a person can't help it! I couldn't get my camera (it's actually my husband's) to work, but two clever guys sitting at the front helped me out. Thanks, guys! Then, when I asked the question, "What do writers need to do pretty much all the time?" a student named Daham came up with a great answer: "Practice!" (I showed the kids my Journal, and explained that I got up extra early this morning to write three pages in it -- the way I do every single morning!)

We talked about doing research, revising (the students have learned all about editing, which is pretty impressive for Grades Five and Six!) and how some stories start with a bit of truth. I gave them the example of my book, Junkyard Dog. I got the idea for the book when I met a guard dog who worked at a local convenience store.

I wish there'd been even more time because I would also have read a little from my latest book, Pyro.

There were some adults who came to listen to my talk, too. One was Candace B., who volunteers at the library. Candace stayed to ask me how much research a fiction writer needs to do. I told her, "Research as needed!" I pointed out how the danger of research is that some people spend so much time researching, they never do any actual writing!!

So the word for today is WRITE. Actually, it's three words: WRITE WRITE WRITE. That's basically what you need to do if you want to write stories. Or as Daham said, "Practice!"

Hey, special thanks to my friend, librarian Elizabeth Macdonnell, for welcoming me to the Montreal Children's Library. I feel right at home in your library and with you, Elizabeth! Thanks also to the students from Westmount Park, and to their teachers. Hope you had a fun morning and learned a lot about how stories work!


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Two Dutch Women on Arts Notebook -- with Stan Asher

This morning, I was a guest on Stan Asher's Radio CINQ program, Arts Notebook. So, not only did I get to catch up with Stan -- he's a former CEGEP teacher with a great interest in Holocaust education -- but I also got to meet his other guest, who turned out to be a Dutch performance artist. (Since I'm of Dutch descent myself, I found this a very exciting development!)

I'm one of two spokespersons for this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival for Children, so Stan asked me questions about the upcoming festival and also about writing for teens. I must say we had such a lively discussion I forgot I was on air!  Here's the link to Radio CINQ's website -- when I checked just now, the interview had not yet been posted, but hopefully you'll be able to access it soon....

What I really want to do in today's blog entry is tell you about Jacqueline Van de Geer, who is the other woman in today's pic. (As you must have figured out by now, that's Stan standing in between us.) Jacqueline was in studio to talk about her latest performance piece, La Guerre en Moi. It's a one-woman show based on her memories of growing up in post-war Rotterdam, and she also draws on memories her father shared with her. Rotterdam was bombed twice during World War II. Jacqueline was born some 13 years after the war ended, but as she explained, there were still many signs of what had happened in her city: "I was brought up in a scarred city," she said. Even though Jacqueline's dad was only a child during the war (he was nine when the war ended), he -- and his wife, too -- were deeply affected by their wartime experience. "I felt an enormous guilt from my parents," Jacqueline said.

Another interesting thing about Jacqueline's work is that it's performed in her own living room. She does what is called home theater. In her case, that means the audience is small; there's room for only 16 people. Jacqueline says theater-goers need to adjust to the unusual venue: "It's a big challenge for them to be in someone's living room."

Tonight and tomorrow's 8 P.M. performances are sold out, but there are second performances at 9 P.M. I'm going to try to go!

Here's another link in case you want to learn about the International Home Theater Festival. I know I do!

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Report from the Computer Room: Westwood Senior High

 Hello hello, dear blog reader!

It's lunch time at Westwood Senior High School in Hudson, Quebec, and I'm in the computer room, writing today's blog entry. I love the sounds of a high school at lunch -- boys' booming voices, girls' laughter, lockers slamming, and yes, a bit of swearing too.
The reason I'm feeling so happy today is I had a great morning with Ali Welik's Work-Oriented Training Path Students. They're a group of young people (that's them in today's pic), aged 14 to 17, who spend three days a week with Miss Welik, and the rest of the week in the workplace. Two of the boys work at local grocery stores, one works at a vet, and the only girl in the class works at a salon. As you can imagine, they've got lots of stories!
That was basically my goal this morning: to help the students find the stories they need to tell. When I mentioned I take boxing lessons and that I'm writing a book about a girl boxer, a student named Norm told us a great story! Apparently, he is a boxer too (a serious one!), and because he works in the meat department at an IGA store, he sometimes uses the cow carcasses for punching bags!! When I heard that story, the top of my arms went cold -- the way they do when I hear or see (or smell!) a great story or a great detail.
Then Spencer, who was sitting next to Norm, did something I love and believe in: Spencer PLAYED with the story, asking my favourite question, "What if?" What if, Spencer wondered, the head butcher walks in when his young employee is practising his punches on a cow carcass? Would the young employee get fired -- or would he talk his way out of it? See... there's a perfect example of how a story can be rooted in reality, but then imagination takes over. Way to go, Spencer!
As usual, I tried to jot down certain DETAILS. That's because DETAILS HELP BRING STORIES TO LIFE. The only girl I told you about is named Charlie (short for Charlotte). (I think it would be cool to read her story... what is it like to be the only girl in a room full of boys? And I love that her nickname just happens to be a boy's name!). I also observed a guy named Joey's smile. He tries not to smile, but when he does, his lower lip curls up the tiniest bit. You know what, Joey? I'm going to use your smile in one of my stories.
This afternoon, I work with one more group -- they're a Grade 11 class. If I like them half as much as I liked Miss Welik's gang, well, it'll be a perfect day!
Three cheers for stories -- and kids with great stories to tell (and interesting smiles)!

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I start every day by writing three pages in the speckled notebook I call my "Morning Pages." Today, I wrote that it was going to be a lickety-split-hippity-hoppity sort of day. That's because it's a little after noon, and I've already been to two schools, will teach a class at Marianopolis this afternoon, and then will be doing an interview tonight for a story I'm writing for the Montreal Gazette.

I could be tired, but I'm not -- instead I'm buzzing from all the excitement.

I started the day with the other Monique, my friend photographer Monique Dykstra. We went to meet Miss Leckner's Grade 3 & 4 class at Willingdon School here in N.D.G. The students will be participating in this year's Quebec Roots project, an educational program offered through the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation. Monique D will teach the class how to shoot photos; I'm responsible for helping them improve their writing skills.

Miss Leckner's kids were fun and attentive and they CHEERED when they heard about our project. Hey, I'm going to tell my class at Marianopolis today that they better cheer too. It sure gives a teacher a lot of energy!

I zipped out (I told you it was a lickity-split-hippity-hoppity day) from Willingdon to go to James Lyng High School, where I did a tele-conference with Miss Corb's Sec. I students at Joliette High School. That was fun, too. With both groups, I talked a little about how I get my ideas and I also talked about the writing process -- and the essential role of rewriting! A student named Amélie wanted to know how many manuscripts I wrote before I sold my first one. I was glad she asked that question! Of course, I told the truth (I only get to lie when I am writing FICTION!)... so I told Amélie and her classmates that I wrote three manuscripts, and possibly even four, before I sold the first one. That reminded me to tell the students something really important: NEVER EVER GIVE UP! (If I had, I would NEVER have become an author.)

I also tried something I've never tried before -- a writing exercise via tele-conference. And you may be able to see from today's pic (if you squint!) that it worked! I gave the students prompts to help them remember some experience from when they were five years old. I've found that when this exercise goes well, it often leads to the germ for a story.

I'm off again now to Willingdon, where the Moniques are going to see whether we can get Miss Leckner's class to agree on a topic for their chapter in the 2013 edition of Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live.

And you know what I'm going to do tomorrow when I have a long break with loads of time to myself? I'm going to do what restores me after busy days like this one....

I'M GOING TO READ AND WRITE! AHH! BLISS! I wish for you, dear blog reader, that you find stuff to do in your own lives, perhaps even reading and writing, that bring you the same bliss.


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Quebec Roots 2013: The Moniques Are Back in Action!

If you've been reading my blog for a while or if you know about the Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation, you will know that Quebec Roots is an educational program in which teams of writers and photographers travel across the province to help students produce a chapter in a book called Quebec Roots: The Place Where I Live. You will also know that the other Monique is my dear friend and fabulous photographer Monique Dykstra.

The exciting news is that after an initial delay, the 2013 edition is back on track!

This afternoon, the Moniques did a short but action-packed writing and photography workshop with Mary Eva's Sec. IV Language Arts class at Heritage Regional High School in St. Hubert. Were Mrs. Eva's students ever smart and enthusiastic!

About today's pic: Those are my hands and Mary Eva is wearing the purple blouse. But what I like best about the pic are the students' faces. I think that you can tell they're excited to be part of the project!

Besides our mini-workshops, we Moniques had another goal today: to help students come up with a focus or topic for their chapter. We had an exciting down-to-the-clock brainstorming session. Some of the topics the students suggested were: the high cost of poutine in the school cafeteria; and homophobia. But because we are democratic sorts, we put the matter to a vote and the students agreed on a topic they all felt they would be able to explore through words and images: school rules and how they are enforced, or sometimes not enforced, and how some students end up in detention.

Of course, because I have a writer-ly interest in TROUBLE, I am eager to read about what goes on in the school's detention room. I am hoping the students will write about that -- and take pics of course, too!

At the end of our session, a student named Brandon was interviewed about Quebec Roots. I was super proud when I heard him say, "Now we're authors. It's very cool!"

Many thanks to Line Richer of Blue Met who accompanied the Moniques, and to Don and Dan who caught our adventures with the class on video. Thanks, Mrs. Eva, for sharing your class with us and to your students -- welcome on board! And I mustn't forget to thank Gabrielle who took good care of my husband's camera and shot some nice pic's -- including the one on today's blog post.

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Solving Problems (Part II)

Hello dear blog reader,

I'm calling today's blog entry, "Solving Problems (Part II)," because I've written before about the link between writing and problem-solving.

I know I've quoted my friend, Montreal author and journalist Joel Yanofsky, who once told one of my classes (I know because I've quoted him many times since then): "Writing is problem-solving."

But the reason I'm back on the subject this week is because, thanks to one of my students, I've got a new insight into the importance of problem-solving. So before I start explaining, I need to thank Adam K, who is taking my Writing for Children course at Marianopolis College.

Adam sent me a TED talk link to a presentation called "The Clues to a Great Story" by Andrew Stanton, the writer behind the movie Toy Story, and the writer and director of WALL-E. The thing Stanton said that blew me away is that people ENJOY solving problems, that our minds are hardwired for problem-solving activities.

When I heard that, I thought YESSS! Now it all makes sense!! Writers (and filmmakers) not only find ourselves encountering and (hopefully) solving problems when we tell our stories, but we have to make our readers (and viewers) solve problems, too! That's why we need to SHOW, NOT TELL. That way our readers have the satisfaction of making connections for themselves. When we give them a chance to do that, well then, they like our stories (and movies) even more!!

If you have time, check out Stanton's talk -- I've linked to it here.

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Mid-Term Madness... or Anne Lamott's Strategy for Making it Through

It's midterm at Marianopolis College where I teach -- and we're all going a little bit bonkers. The students have assignments and tests. We teachers have piles of correcting -- and because I juggle writing with teaching, I've got writing deadlines looming too.

So, in all of my classes this week, I've made a little time to talk about Anne Lamott, an American novelist whose advice comes in handy this time of year.

"Bird by bird," Lamott tells us.

Bird By Bird? It's the title of Lamott's book about writing. And there's a great story behind the title. When Lamott's brother was a kid, he had to do a project about birds and he was feeling overwhelmed. When he told his dad about his situation, his dad advised him: "Bird by bird."

I think about those words a lot when my life gets super busy.

If I think about all the things I need to do in the next couple of weeks, well... I might not want to get out of bed tomorrow morning! But if I tackle one task at a time, go bird by bird, it doesn't seem nearly so bad.

Anyway, that's it for today's blog entry. That's because I've got to go and do a little work on one of my birds before bedtime! Good luck with your sparrows and finches and exotic parrots!

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Dear Sara

The title of today's blog entry is "Dear Sara" because I've been in touch with a student named ... you guessed it ... Sara and she asked me such a good question I thought I'd turn it into a blog entry.

Sara is in Mrs. Murphy's English class at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. We met a couple of weeks ago when I spoke at St. Thomas. Sara kindly gave me her permission to tell you about her and to quote her question... so here it is: 

"However,I do have a question for you: why didn't you give up after your first couple of manuscripts got rejected the first time? What made you want to keep going?"

The tough part, of course, is trying to come up with an honest answer.

Why didn't I give up after my first couple of manuscripts (actually, Sara, there were more than a couple! it might have been three, or possibly even FOUR!) were rejected?.... I didn't give up because, well, BECAUSE I COULDN'T. I wanted so badly, so desperately, to be a published author that to be quite frank, giving up was never a real possibility for me. Sure, I sometimes toyed with the idea of giving up on my dream, but never in a serious way. Meaning... sometimes I FELT LIKE GIVING UP, but I didn't act on that feeling.

A wise acquaintance once told me, "It's not how you feel that counts; it's how you behave." I behaved in the not-giving-up fashion and eventually... though it took a long time... and I sometimes felt discouraged... I sold my first manuscript.

And you know what else, Sara and anyone else who is reading this entry? Don't you give up either! Not if your dream is to be an author or a clinical geneticist or a fireman! If you want it, I can already predict there will be obstacles in your way, but you've got to go for it, too!

That act of going for it ... for me, it's what makes me feel most alive. And grateful to be alive.

So Dear Sara, Thanks for asking me this difficult question. I hope you'll stay in touch and keep me posted on how the pursuit of your own dream is coming.

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Writing to you from St. Thomas High School...

I am actually writing today’s blog entry from the library at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire. It’s lunch hour and I am lucky to have company – nine students who’ve come to eat lunch with me and do a few writing exercises.

Right now, they are doing one of my favourite exercises: writing book blurbs. And judging by the way their pens and pencils are zipping along the paper, they’ve got many good ideas.

Today, I’m meeting with three Grade Nine classes. I only get 50 minutes with two of the groups, but I had nearly two hours with Tania Ditchburn’s class. So there was time for a writing exercise! I asked the students, who are studying memoir writing, to remember back to when they were five years old. Many of them came up with great material and I asked three of the students for permission to share what they wrote. So here goes:

Thomas wrote about remembering how, when he was in pre-K, he was forced to eat liver: “It smelled nasty.” Amanda remembered posing for a family photograph. She included the following lovely detail: “My sister played with my hair.” And Anthony wrote about his grandmother’s noodle soup and about jumping on the family couch, “pretending to be a zoo animal.”

I’ll end today’s blog entry with my absolute favourite moment of the day. A Grade Ten student named Hannah who did a writing workshop with me last year popped by for lunch and told me how, ever since we met, she has followed my advice about keeping a daily journal. Here is what Hannah had to say about her journal: “It’s helping. It really is. It’s getting the creative juices flowing!”

So thanks to librarian Carolyn Pye for inviting me to St. Thomas again this year. Thanks to the teachers for sharing your students – and thanks to the students for being bright and open! Here’s to all of you!


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Guess Who's Part of the Furniture at St. Thomas High School

There are some schools I've visited so often that, as the expression goes, I feel like "part of the furniture"! When I arrived at St. Thomas High School in Pointe-Claire this morning, I knew exactly where to park my car, where to find the library, and where to set up for my talk. I also knew the students would be focused and attentive -- and they were!

I met with four groups of grade nines and I'll be back next Monday to meet another three groups. So I'll have a chance to work with every ninth grade student in the building.

My presentations were only 40 minutes long each, but I think I packed a lot of information in in a short time. I talked about the importance of WRITING and READING A LOT. I explained how writers need to pay attention to details that can help them tell their stories and of course, I discussed my favourite subject: TROUBLE. Without trouble, we don't really have stories. I advised the students to do their best to stay out of trouble, but I told them how if they've had a taste of trouble (most of us do at some point in our lives), they should USE it in their writing. Feelings that come from lived experience are powerful and can be the source of stories that will touch our readers.

The pic in today's blog entry was taken at lunch time. Three students, now in Grade 10, whom I met last year came by to fill me in on how their writing is going. And guess what? Together, we came up with a seriously cool idea for a writing project! I don't want to give too much away, except to tell you it involves fan fiction.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will also know that I "collect" interesting body language. Well, I found a new one today: I saw a student unpeeling the cellophane wrapper from his juice box, then shredding the wrapper into tiny cellophane flakes. I think I'll use that in my next book!

And two students, Eric and Matthew, taught me something new: a new description for the semi-colon. Together, they came up with the term -- are you ready? -- "winky eye." I like it! Here's a demonstration of the winky eye semi-colon  ;

For those of you at St. Thomas who saw me today and would like to show me some of your writing, don't forget to come by next Monday at lunch. And bring your lunch with you. As long as we don't crumble, Mrs. Pye, your wonderful librarian, is going to let us eat while we work! 

One last thing: there wasn't time to tell the last group the story of the little brass man on my necklace. So here's the story -- when my mum arrived in Theresienstadt (a Nazi concentration camp), she was 13. Her 14th birthday was two weeks later. On that day, she was crying on a stoop, when a woman (another prisoner who was about 30 years old) asked my mum what was wrong. My mum told her, "It's my birthday and no one gave me a present." So the woman gave my mother the little brass man. My mother never saw the woman again, and chances are, that like most prisoners at Theresienstadt, this woman would have been transported to Auschwitz where she almost certainly perished. The little man, and the story of her generosity, may be all that is left of her. Ever since my mum gave me the charm, I have worn it every single day. It reminds me that stories matter -- and that we need to listen to them, tell them, and pass them on.... To my friends at St. Thomas, see you all next week!

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I Love When Students Get It... Quickly!

I would probably be a better teacher -- and a nicer person -- if I was more patient. Only I'm not!

Which is why it is pretty delightful when the students I work with "get it" quickly. That's what happened to me today when I went to work with two of Monic Farrell's Sec. I classes at Mother Teresa Junior High School in Laval.

I had visited both groups earlier this fall, so today was a working day -- meaning the students showed me writing they are working on, and I made lots of comments and suggestions for improvement.

I kept a running list of suggestions on the board (thanks Craig, for writing some of them down for me in the first class). These suggestions included: read your work aloud (it helps you spot errors); eliminate adverbs wherever possible; and shuffle the contents of your sentences around as a way to achieve greater clarity.

Anyway, Miss Farrell's students really GOT IT -- and that made me super happy. I noticed how  several students crossed out adverbs they decided were unnecessary. One group who were working on a piece about La Ronde (for out-of-town readers, that's our giant amusement park) responded to my criticism that their writing sounded too much like a travel brochure. Their re-write was much better than their first draft and included their own "voices," which helped to bring their writing to life.

A few students even spent part of their lunch hour with me, showing me more work. That's me and Dalia in today's pic. Dalia is working on a lively piece about the imaginary break-up of her beloved band, One Direction. Sarah took the pic -- hey, thanks Sarah for putting my camera on the right setting.

It's true we don't always "get" things straightaway when they are explained to us... sometimes, we need to spiral around in our errors before we can make progress... but it sure is nice to get to see progress happen when I'm in a classroom. Thanks to Miss Farrell for inviting me back and sharing your talented students with me, and to all the students I worked with today -- you're getting it!!

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"A weird mix of pleasure and pain, agony and joy"

The title of today's blog entry is a quote from Victoria, B.C., novelist Bill Gaston, who says: “I can’t imagine not writing, it’s a weird mix of pleasure and pain, agony and joy.”

I've got Gaston on my mind, since tomorrow, at 1 P.M., I'll be talking about his latest novel, The World, on Radio-Canada's Plus qu'on est de fous, plus on lit! How I loved this book, which is about... well... everything! The main character Stuart Price is in terrible trouble, but he is saved by his sense of humour -- and his big, open heart.

I agree with Gaston that writing is "a weird mix of pleasure and pain, agony and joy." I'm about to start the third revision of my book that will be released this coming fall. I'm jittery, I'm excited, I'm hopeful, I'm worried...

This morning, despite the -27 degree C. weather, I went for a run with my husband and told him how I was feeling about facing the next phase of the giant re-write. I said, "I know I've felt this way before, and the only thing to do about it is TO START." You know what he told me? That I sounded WISE!

So, here's to starting something that feels difficult and scary. Despite the weird mix of feelings that writing brings up for me, I wouldn't have it any other way. I am HOOKED ON WRITING. And I hope you are, too!


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"You learn more from being wrong than being right"

Last night, driving home from dinner with a friend, I heard the tail end of a CBC interview with environmental activist Mark Lynas. Lynas told interviewer Jian Ghomeshi: "You learn more from being right than being wrong."

I think it's a brilliant line, don't you?

As soon as I got into the house, I wrote it down so that I would remember to tell it to my students -- and to share it with you, dear blog reader. In fact, I'm even thinking I may try to work the line into my latest writing project.

A novel wouldn't be too interesting if the protagonist was always right. The protagonist in the manuscript I've been labouring over the last few months is in big trouble. Hopefully, the trouble she's gotten herself into will help her learn -- and though I certainly never set out to write a "teachy" book, I do hope that readers will learn from Iris's  predicament.

All this to say: I love a good radio interview and I'm glad I wrote the line down. It's simple and it's true. So much of the time we focus on being right, getting the right answer, but Lynas makes a great point: we don't learn much from being right.

My opa (the Dutch word for grandfather) whom I loved very much once told me something similar. He said, "We don't make mistakes. Our mistakes make us."

My mistakes have certainly made me. What about you?

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Meet Nancy Richler -- I Did!

At a holiday luncheon today, I got to hang out with lots of interesting people, including author Nancy Richler. Nancy is the author of four novels, including The Imposter Bride, which recently made the shortlist for the coveted Giller Prize.

Because I am always thinking of you dear blog reader, I asked Nancy for some writing tips that I could share here. Nancy thinks aspiring writers basically need to do one thing: WRITE! Here's how she put it: "When I started, I never waited for an idea. I still don't wait for an idea. I sit down every morning and I say, 'I have to write.' When I was first starting, I'd describe the cup of coffee I was drinking or I'd give myself little assignments like 'Write about an embarrassing moment.' I got used to writing without worrying about where it was going."

Nancy has begun work on her next novel. "Nothing gets easier," she told me -- which made me feel good because that's my experience, too.

Nancy does not work from an outline. "I follow the voice," she said.

So, if finally getting started on that novel you've always wanted to write is on your to-do list for 2013, try listening for the voice of your narrator (or main character) ... and follow it! Thanks, Nancy, for a great chat! Hope our paths cross again soon!

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The Re-Write -- and my Poetic Side

Even though I'm a writer, I don't often think in similes or metaphors. Maybe because my style is more direct.

But here I am working on what feels like a pretty giant re-write and it's making me think of poetic comparisons. Here are some.

On the hardest days, this manuscript feels like a house that is falling down over my head! My husband advises, "Step back; take a little distance from it." And I say, "Step back? I can't!" Then I tell him about the falling-down-house-feeling. I am, I add, hammering desperately, trying to keep the thing together!

Other days, this manuscript feels more like a badly behaved child. I send it off to school (or in this case to my editor), and I worry that it will get expelled, tossed out for bad behavior!

But on better days (it's early yet, so I can only hope this will be one of those days), this project feels dear and tender, like green shoots emerging from the ground in early March. Of all the fiction projects I have ever worked on, this one comes closest to my own experience.

The thing about writing is this: sometimes it's really tough; sometimes, it goes a little better; and sometimes, well (and this doesn't happen to me too often), it just comes. The trick is staying with it. So I keep hammering away. I keep trying to mother my delinquent. I marvel at those green shoots. 


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Writing for Writing Teachers

I taught writing for nearly a decade before I realized that though I loved teaching, something big was missing in my life. I didn't need to climb a mountaintop or go to an ashram in India to figure out what it was: WRITING! I had loved writing stories when I was a kid, but as I got older, I became so focused on academic writing that I nearly forgot the old pleasure I took in making up stories.

That's why yesterday, I was so excited to offer a workshop called "Writing for Writing Teachers" at this year's Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers' annual convention.

I spent most of the day with a group of English teachers from across the province. We began with writing warm up exercises, but by the end of the day, the participants had begun working on a short piece that might just lead them to a bigger project.

Amy, who teaches English and drama at James Lyng High School here in Montreal, told me her goal is not only to do more writing herself, but also to help build a community of writers at her school. "It's through writing and art that we develop our personality," she said.

Deb, who teaches at Riverview High School in Port Cartier, told me she just finished reading my book Miracleville. She also told me about one of her students, Zach, who turns out to be a fan of my Orca Soundings and Currents novels! Deb will be retiring in June, which means she'll have more time for her own writing. "I know I have a story to tell," Deb said. "It's a matter of finding the time."

The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to find the time for things that matter most to us. For me, that's writing. So if you happen to be a writing teacher reading today's blog entry, maybe it's time for you to find the time to make writing a regular habit. What better example is there to set for our students?

Thanks to my friend, teacher Mary Eva, for encouraging me to participate in the QPAT convention. Thanks to QPAT for having me, and to my workshop participants for working hard and being good sports! And a quick shout out to two of my friends, Sebastian and Pearl, who signed up for the workshop... despite having already heard many of my stories!! 

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Report from Salon du Livre 2012

When I was a little girl, my dad volunteered with an organization called The Lion's Club. At Christmas, the club raised money by selling fruitcakes. I remember going with my dad to the local shopping center and asking strangers to buy fruitcake! (It was quite embarrassing!)

I've started today's blog entry with this story because it turns out the skills I learned selling fruitcakes have come in handy in my career as an author!

This morning, when I was sitting at the signing booth for Courte Echelle, the French-language publisher of two of my books, I basically had to talk to strangers. At least, I did not have to talk them into buying fruitcake!

Luckily, I love meeting new people and I'm not at all shy. So I went right over to people I saw (especially ones who were looking at my two French titles, Poupée and Pris Au Jeu) and said, "Hello, I'm the author of those books!"

So, in today's entry, I'm going to tell you a little about some of the people I met. They included Charles-Vincent Chevalier (that's him next to me int he pic) and Mathieu Vinuesa (wearing the dark scarf), who both work at Centre Gabrielle-Roy, an adult education facility in St. Michel.

Vinuesa, a teacher at the school, explained that some of his students are just learning to read; others are reading proficiently at the Secondary V level. Chevalier is the school's library technician. He described the kind of books his students need: "We like books that deal with contemporary problems." We chatted about why books are important. Chevalier thinks that by reading, the students at his school can learn to communicate more effectively. Vinuesa added something I really liked. He said, "Books can help readers learn how to live."

I also met Laurence Demers and Angélica Stergiopoulos, who are both 15 and students at Ecole Augustin-Morin in Ste. Adele.

The girls (that's them in the 2nd pic) have been friends since last year and both of them love to read. As Stergiopoulos put it, "Reading lets us enter into another universe and discover other stories."

I was signing a copy of Pris Au Jeu for Frédéric Bricault (he's 15 and goes to College Esther-Blondin near Joliette) and because I didn't want to make a mistake when I got to the French part of my inscription, I asked Bricault to proofread!

Bricault told me he is interested in books and movies about gambling; the psychology of people who gamble fascinates him. Here's what I wrote inside his book: "Hope you like my book. J'espere que tu trouveras un bon angle pyschologique!"

As I was packing to go back to school, another author turned up to sign books. It was Charles Prémont, author of a fantasy trilogy that starts with Le Fils du Singe and concludes with Le Fils des Dieux. Prémont, who is also an anthropologist and journalist, told me he is currently at work on a new series set in outer space. I asked Prémont the question I always ask authors -- what advice does he have for aspiring authors? Here's his answer: "Keep on going! It's hard to break in. The first one is the hardest to write."

So, that'll be our motto for today: Keep on going! Here's hoping more of my books gets translated into French. How else can I get myself invited back to Salon du Livre next year?!


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Bonjour from Quebec City

It's me, writing to you today from a little cafe on Rue Saint-Joseph in Quebec City. I spent the day at Ecole Secondaire de la Seigneurie in Beauport working with Madame Blanchet's Secondary III students. Must say it was a whirlwind kind of day -- but fun and stimulating!

I did what I usually do when I meet young writers -- told them about how I got started writing and shared some of my favourite tips (write a lot; read a lot; get ideas when you run or even in the shower; revise revise revise!). I also explained where I got the ideas for some of my novels. For instance, the inspiration for my latest book, Pyro, came from a radio interview I heard several years ago -- the mayor of a town outside Quebec City was talking about a spate of fires in his community and he said how much he wanted to catch whomever was starting those fires. Which got me thinking: WHAT IF HIS OWN SON WAS THE FIRESTARTER?!! And that is basically how Pyro was born... of course, a lot of hard work followed that moment of inspiration. Which was another thing I talked about today -- how writing is basically a lot of hard work, but that it's satisfying and that, for me, the challenge is what brings me back every morning to the computer screen.

I asked the students to write about a memory of being ten years old. Though they only had about 15 minutes for the exercise, I must say I was impressed by their work -- especially considering they were writing in their second language. I asked two of the students for permission to share their opening lines with you in today's blog entry... so here they come:

Tommy began his memory of a day at the hockey rink like this: "I touched his head to see if he was okay." Dominique wrote: "I had a big egg in my hand." Now, what do you think? Don't you want to keep reading those stories? That, mes amis, is the trick to writing. Every sentence has to make your reader want to keep reading.

I'm off now to catch the train home to Montreal. Thanks, Madame Blanchet, for inviting me. And thanks to your students for working so hard!

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I Better Keep Writing Books...

I better keep writing books if I want to keep having book launches!

I thought I'd tell you a little today about the recent launch of Pyro, my latest YA book. The launch took place here on Sunday at the Montreal Firefighters Museum -- and it was a ton of fun!

First, I did a mini writing workshop ("Ways to Ignite Your Writing Flame!") for both kids and adults. If you were there, you'll know what I mean when I say we filled the room with words!

It was really special having the launch at the Firefighters Museum. Special thanks to all the auxiliary firefighters who were on hand to make sure things ran smoothly. An extra special thanks to Steve Garnet, who runs the museum and who gave me the go-ahead to do the launch there. Oh, and another extra special thanks to my niece Claudia Lighter, to whom the book is dedicated, and who did a little speech before my reading. She told the audience, "Put down 50 Shades of Grey and read Pyro!"

I'm posting a couple of  pics here of the launch. The first one is of me and Steve... the second one was taken during the mini workshop.

A lot of solitary work goes into book writing, which makes me especially appreciative of the opportunity to celebrate with my friends and readers.

But ... do I really write so I can keep having book launches? Well... yes... and no. The truth is I write BECAUSE I CAN'T STOP! Hope you feel that way about writing too.

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Virtual Visit to Magazine Writing Class at McGill University

Recently, Richard George Andrews, who works at McGill University's Development and Alumni Relations office, wrote to ask if I'd pop by some Wednesday evening to visit his Magazine Writing class. The course is offered through the McGill Writing Centre. Because this is such a busy period for me, I suggested we do the visit by Skype. And if I may say so myself, it worked out well! The timing was good, too, because we'd agreed to start at around 8 P.M., and our supply of Hallowe'en candy ran out about ten minutes before that!

So, I thought today, I'd tell you about what Richard's students and I discussed. I told them a bit about how I broke into journalism (basically, I was persistent and I started to read the newspaper like a writer, instead of a regular reader, paying special attention to any spots in the paper where I noticed content from freelance writers).

A student named Diana wanted to know what a typical workday is like for me. I warned them I am a little obsessed with writing, so maybe I am not the best example! Then I showed them the shelf in my office where I keep my journals. I wanted them to know that for many years, I have started every single day with a 3-page journal entry. My work in the journal is a way for me to warm up my writing muscles. I can't even bear to imagine a day that doesn't start with my journal (and a little cup of espresso)!!

I also told Diana that while I'm writing, I take many tea breaks. But I explained that, to a casual observer, though those tea breaks might look like I'm slacking off, they are part of my writing process. When I walk downstairs to the kitchen, when I plug in the kettle, when I watch the teabag steep in the hot water... I AM THINKING ABOUT WHAT I AM WRITING. And I've noticed that often, my best ideas come to me when I am fussing with my tea!

Richard wanted to know whether I dream of giving up teaching to write full time. I told him the truth -- that sometimes my schedule does feel too hectic, but that I love all the things I do: teaching, writing fiction, and working as a journalist. You know, over the last years, I've often felt a little wacky when I try to explain that to people, but just this week when I met author Mariko Tamaki (see the previous blog entry to learn more about her), she said something that was true for me too: "I can't turn down interesting work."

So, here's what I wish for Richard's students: May you find lots of interesting work, may your arms tingle at good stories, and may you write what you need to write.

Oh, a word about today's pic. At the end of our Skype session, the students clapped. So I whipped out my camera and asked them to clap again -- so I could capture the moment for you, dear blog reader!

PS: Don't forget you're all invited to the launch of my newest YA novel, Pyro. The party is this Sunday from 2 - 4 P.M. at the Firefighters Museum, 5100 St. Laurent Blvd. I'll be doing a mini writing workshop from 2 - 2:30 ... writers of any age are welcome to join me for that.

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Fired Up By YA Author Mariko Tamaki

I'm just back from a wonderful talk by Mariko Tamaki, who's in town to promote her YA novel, (you) set me on fire

Tamaki spoke at Babar Books in Pointe-Claire. Her talk was sponsored by the Montreal Children's Literature Roundtable. I didn't want to miss it because I am discussing Tamaki's novel on radio (for Rad-Can's plus qu'on est fous, plus qu'on lit! on November 21st). 

Tamaki divides her time between the Bay area in San Francisco and Toronto. She is best known for her graphic novel Skim (illustrated by her cousin Jillian Tamaki), which was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award.

Tamaki told us that when she was a teenager, she was a "bookish nerd." She read everything she could find by Canadian writers Margaret Laurence, Timothy Findlay and Alice Munro. But she said she was also influenced by comedians like Roseanne, Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy. Here's what she had to say about Eddie Murphy: "I think he's a homophobe, but he's also an amazing storyteller."

(you) set me on fire is set at a college residence in an unnamed American city, but Tamaki, who studied at McGill University and lived in residence there, says the book is based on her experiences here in Montreal. Her protagonist, Allison, is 17, and like Tamaki, she's queer. In the story, Allison gets caught up with a friend named Shar, who turns out to be bossy, even cruel.

Tamaki says that as a writer, she has a "continued obsession with teenage girls." In Tamaki's novel, Allison stands by while Shar mistreats another girl who lives in their residence. Tamaki told us, "I am interested in the offense of non-action .... [on the part of] the person who is there and a part of something."

Tamaki told us that working on a graphic novel taught her a lot about how to write. "I'm a better editor because of comic books. In comic books, there's very little room for words."

What fascinates me most about Tamaki and her work is that she is pushing the boundaries of YA fiction. She explained that in Skim, she wanted to explore "the things you can and cannot say." 

I've already read (you) set me on fire. I found it difficult and disturbing, but powerful. Tonight, I bought a copy of Skim, which I plan to start reading in a few minutes.

This must be my week for fiery things. First, I got to meet the author of (you) set me on fire. On Sunday afternoon, I launch my own book Pyro at the Fireman's Museum here in Montreal. If you're in town, consider yourself invited!

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Author Mark Frutkin Comes to Town

Earlier this week, I went to hear Ottawa-based author and poet Mark Frutkin read from his new novel, A Message for the Emperor (Vehicule Press). Frutkin, who has won the Trillium Award, and been nominated for the Governor General's Prize, tends to do a lot of research when he writes a novel. A Message for the Emperor is set in ancient China during the Song Dynasty. The protagonist is a landscape painter named Li Wen.

Because my husband and I had met Mark and his wife Faith when we are at the GritLit festival in Hamilton, Ontario, we made plans to have dinner with them last night. And because I'm always thinking about you, dear blog reader, I asked Mark some questions about his writing process -- and scribbled his answers down on the edge of the paper runner that was across our table.

First, Mark explained that his new book was inspired by Chinese landscape paintings. Mark is an admirer of this style of painting. "I love the feeling of mountains and rivers forever and of the human element being so miniscule," he said.

Mark doesn't do much outlining when he starts a novel. "I usually know where I'm starting and where I end up, but I don't know beforehand how I'll get there. That's the interesting part," he explained. In that way, Mark is a little like his protagonist Li Wen. In A Message for the Emperor, Li Wen also embarks on an important journey, and like his creator, Li Wen knows his destination, but he doesn't know what obstacles and satisfactions he'll encounter on his way.

So here's to obstacles and satisfactions and journeys ... and the feeling of mountains and rivers forever!

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Fun Morning at Mother Teresa Junior High School

'Tis the season for school visits! Today marked my first school visit of the new school year. 

That means I started my day with Monic Farrell's Sec. I English classes at Mother Teresa Junior High. Because I've worked with Miss Farrell's students before, I knew they'd be well prepared -- and they were.

Here's an example. In the first class (that's them with me in today's first pic), I was saying how we writers need to keep our eyes and ears open for interesting stories and characters. Then I asked the class, "What else do we need to hunt for?" A student named Jerushan shot up his hand and gave me the answer I was looking for: DETAILS.

So here's an example of some details I observed at MTJHS today: When I walked up the stairs, I noticed how the building smelled of shampoo. Dee-licious! (I guess a lot of students washed their hair this morning.) I also noticed how several girls in the two classes were wearing unusual bracelets -- neon coloured hair scrunchies they were wearing around their wrists. Apparently this is a MTJHS trend... hmmm... maybe I should use it in an upcoming story. That's because, as I tell students, details help bring stories to life.

I also talked to both groups about how much it has meant to me to write about my mother's story. (I used her story for the basis of my novel What World Is Left.) It turns out that a student named Gregory has an important family story to tell, too. His great-grandfather survived the Armenian holocaust and Gregory seems to know a lot about his great-grandfather's experience and how he was nearly left for dead. Gregory, you've got to write this story!

Today's second pic is of Miss Farrell (I love when teachers do my writing exercises too!) with some of her students. I asked the students to remember back to being ten years old -- and in particular to focus on their sensory memories. There wasn't time to read what everyone had written, but a boy named Chris wrote something so lovely that I asked his permission to share it here. (Thanks, Chris, for giving me the go-ahead.) Chris was writing about his memories of traveling to Greece. You'll see that his writing is simple and evocative: "I tasted feta, smelled cigarette smoke and played with my cousins." Nice, n'est-ce-pas?

So thanks to Miss Farrell's students for being a lively, responsive audience -- and thanks to Miss Farrell for the invite and to school librarian Miss Venditti for sharing her wonderful welcoming library with us this morning (and for giving me some great tips about hot new books for teens!).

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"The truth is, it wasn't a big deal" -- VPR & Adverbs

The title of today's blog entry ("The truth is, it wasn't a big deal") comes from the wonderful short story "One Holy Night" by Sandra Cisneros.

I've been teaching short stories in my Intro. to English class this semester. When we went over this line, one of the students in my class, Jessica, pounced on the word "it," calling out, "Vague pronoun reference!"

I have to admit I was pleased! Since school started in August, I've been trying to drill basic writing rules into my students' heads. In our class, VPR doesn't stand for Vermont Public Radio; it stands for Vague Pronoun Reference. (Though I had to explain to Jessica that once you've mastered the basic rules of grammar, you can go on -- like Sandra Cisneros did here -- to break them!)

Another rule I've been drilling into my students' heads is: Death to Adverbs. I told my students their writing will be stronger if they avoid words that end in "ly" (most adverbs do). On the other hand, I told them that sometimes adverbs are acceptable -- what I want my students to do is catch themselves when use an adverb and ask, "Do I really need that word?"

Today, I found my copy of Stephen King's wise book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I remembered that King was also no fan of adverbs. Here's what King has to say on the subject: "The adverb is not your friend.... Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.... I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs." 

How's that for good writing?

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Do You Think We Can Learn From Other People's Stories?

This semester, one of the courses I am teaching at Marianopolis College here in Montreal is Intro. to College English. Just as class was ending this week, I asked my students: "Do you think we can learn from other people's stories?"

We've already read two stories together: the famous fairy tale "The Story of the Three Little Pigs," and Sandra Cisneros's short story "One Holy Night." In "The Story of the Three Little Pigs," the first two pigs are eaten by the big bad wolf -- all because they didn't use the right materials to build their houses. The third pig is smarter. He learns from the first two pigs' mistakes, and makes his house from bricks.

In "One Holy Night," the narrator falls in love with a man who turns out to be ... well ... a murderer. But we understand, too, why the narrator fell for this guy -- as Cisneros writes, the narrator longed to be loved "like a revolution. Like a religion."

Sometimes, I think we learn best from OUR OWN mistakes. Of course, that method involves a lot of work and sometimes also heartbreak.

But you know what my students answered when I asked, "Do you think we can learn from other people's stories?"

They all called out, "YES!!"

Which made me very happy -- both as a teacher and a writer. And as I told my class, "That's why I read. To learn from stories!"

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Message From a Dutch Reader

Een Andere Wereld, the Dutch language translation of my novel What World Is Left has brought a lot of joy into my life. One of the joys is connecting with Dutch readers. I often think that, had the Second World War not happened, my parents would have stayed in Holland and I'd likely have lived out my life there. So some of the Dutch readers who have contacted me might well have been my friends....

Last week, I had a message from a woman who is also named Monique. She told me she is enjoying Een Andere Wereld a lot, but that, at night, she finds herself having bad dreams about the book.

At first, I didn't know how to respond. I have to admit I was pleased my book is having a big impact on her -- but I also felt badly about the bad dreams. Then I came up with an idea of how I could reply to her.

I decided to tell Monique a little about my mother, whose story I used as the basis for Een Andere Wereld/ What World Is Left. It's true my mother suffered a great deal during her years in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. But what I really wanted Monique to know is that my mother is a happy fun smart lively woman who managed in her own way to overcome her past without ever forgetting about it. In my note to Monique, I told her my mother is "geestig" (not sure I spelled that Dutch word right, but it means funny in a sharp way, which my mum certainly is).

We all go through tough times -- and of course, people who lived through the Holocaust went through especially tough times -- but it's important for the rest of us to know that not only can people survive, but they can emerge whole... altered, that's for sure, but still whole.

Dank u vel, Monique T, for writing to me! My mother sends you her groetjes!

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Back on French Radio, Today in the Company of Author Kim Thuy

You may remember that last winter, I did a number of spots on the Radio Canada literary program, Plus qu'on est de fous, plus qu'on lit!...

Well, guess what? I'm BACK-- this time as a regular columnist! My beat is English Canadian literature, and I'll be reporting and reviewing new releases.

Today, I spoke about C.S. Richardson's lovely new book, The Emperor of Paris. The book is set in the early nineteenth century in Paris and it's a kind of ode to love and literature and the little twists of fate that end up creating our lives. One of the main characters, a butcher named Emile Notre-Dame cannot read or write, but he can tell a great story. He hands over his breads and brioches, "with a smile and a story."

Yesterday, The Emperor of Paris was longlisted for the 2012 Giller Award. Also on the list is Ru by Montreal author Kim Thuy. And Thuy was also on the show today, interviewed by host Marie-Louise Arsenault. 

I've met Thuy before. She's a wonderful funny down-to-earth woman. And today she said some things that were so smart I had to jot them down to share with my students -- and with you, dear blog reader.

Arsenault asked Thuy how she feels about language. Thuy said, for her, working with words "is like playing with Lego blocks." She also shared some wisdom she got long ago from her mother: "Life is a struggle. Sadness leads to defeat."

I love how writing is a combination of work and play. Yes, we writers have to work hard to find the best way to put our thoughts and feelings into words, but we need to play with language, too. Thanks Kim Thuy for reminding us of that!


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Back to School!

It may be sunny and warm outside, but for those of us at Marianopolis College -- it's officially BACK TO SCHOOL!

In today's pic, you can see me with each of my three classes: Intro. to College English (that's the first pic); and two sections of The Stuff of Nonsense.

It's my first fall in the college since 2009 (I've had three fall sabbaticals in a row that allowed me more time for writing). And I have to admit, I was a little reluctant to go back. It is awfully nice sitting right here at my desk and inventing stories. But you know what? I walked into my first class yesterday afternoon -- and I remembered again how much I love teaching and working with young people.

I remember, too, being a first year student at Marianopolis College (some 35 years ago!!) and how excited I was to be there. I think one of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much is that I get to return to that time with my students.

One of the things I told my students is they need to appreciate being at the school -- that we're all privileged to be there. I described to them an elementary school I visited last summer in Kenya. The walls were made of cardboard, the textbooks were old and worn, and more than half of the students had tested positive for HIV-AIDS.

I didn't take a photo of that school because I didn't want to be the gawking foreigner. But I made myself a promise: that I would never forget what I saw and that I'd share the memory with every class I ever taught.

So, I will do my best to take my own advice and appreciate my life at school with my 105 new students. Of course, I cannot deny that my students inspire my stories. So, while my students take notes this semester about class material, I'll be observing them too, listening to how they speak to me and each other, watching their body language (of course!), and trying to imagine what it must feel like to be them.

How else could I ever write books about teenagers?

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Do You Know the Difference Between a Contortionist and an Aerialist?

I had lunch plans today with a contortionist who attends Ecole Nationale de Cirque here in Montreal. That's because I'm doing preliminary research for a new YA manuscript set at a circus school.

As you can expect, I learned a lot in a couple of hours! The first thing I learned is the difference between a contortionist and an aerialist. My new friend, it turns out, is an aerialist -- meaning she performs acrobatics in the air.

Today, I only saw her perform at the table of the vegetarian restaurant we went to! Because she was wearing a skirt, her acrobatics were limited to arm movements. Check out today's pic for a demonstration -- can YOU do that?

So, I bet you want to know some of the interesting stuff she told me. One is that circus students live in a bubble. "We eat, breathe and sleep circus," were her words. Another thing she told me that I found cool and intriguing is that circus students don't see the world the way the rest of us do. "We don't see things as obstacles, like a table or a chair. We see it as something we can play on." THAT MADE ME HAPPY -- both because it helps me understand the circus world a little better -- and also because it's an endorsement of PLAY (something I'm a great fan of.)

Okay, off I go to have dinner with two writer friends, Lori Weber and Jane Barclay. Then tomorrow, I am transformed back into a pumpkin  (did I really say pumpkin?!) ... I meant to say TEACHER. I'll be back to teaching full-time at Marianopolis College. As you can imagine, I'll have loads to blog about over the next 15 weeks.

Next time you see a table or a chair, dear blog reader, try to see it in a new way. I know I'm going to try!

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The Big Re-Read

So every weekday this summer (except when I was away in Holland and then in Maine), I have been working on my boxing story. Yesterday, I finished the first draft. (Insert drum roll here!)

That means the Big Re-Read is officially underway.

Here's what the Big Re-Read means to me: pleasure and pain.

Pleasure happens when I read something I like. It mostly happens when my characters say cool stuff. Only for me, pain is a little more frequent at this stage. Pain happens when I read things that don't feel quite right. Pain also comes when I add more and more items to my "To Fix" list.

The one really good thing is: I've been through this process before. (That's what comes after you've published twelve books.) I am on intimate terms with both the pleasure and the pain. And I know that my "To Fix" list is going to be very long, and that slowly, slowly I'll check items off the list.

There is a Robert Frost line I love: "The only way out is through." That line applies to life itself -- especially in difficult circumstances. But for me, today, the line also applies as I begin the Big Re-Read and the Even Bigger Re-Write. 

You know what else I haven't told you? I'm a little sad not to be writing the first fresh draft anymore. I LOVE MY CHARACTERS IN THIS MANUSCRIPT. ESPECIALLY PRETTY BOY!!

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An Example of How Writing Can Happen in Strange Places...

I often tell my students writing doesn't only happen at a desk.

That being said, I do most of my writing right here -- at my old pine desk upstairs in our lovely old house in Montreal. 

Just about every weekday this summer, I've sat at this desk and tried my best to keep telling the story I've been working on. Some days, the words come easily. More often, it takes a great deal of effort (and time) to get them out.

Yesterday was one of those days when the words took a lot of effort. I spent the first half of the day at the computer. Then, because I had an appointment, I had to stop. I got on my bike and zipped over to where I had to go. The bike ride took about 20 minutes and I honestly didn't spend a second thinking about my story. I thought about other things like: how good it felt to move, how hot it was outside and what good time I was making!

When I finally sat down to wait my turn, a strange and wonderful thing happened. I HAD A WHOLE BUNCH OF IDEAS FOR WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT IN MY CHAPTER. Because I only had the tiniest piece of notepaper handy, I grabbed my pen and covered that little sheet with notes. And when I came home about an hour later and sat down at the computer, the words just flowed.

The moral of this story (in case you need me to point it out to you) is: sometimes it helps to take a break from what you are working on. And while you are taking a break, your brain may keep working -- pretty much without you. TRY IT!!

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Reflecting on the Writing Life... and Look What Came in Today's Mail

Last week, I ran (literally, since I was out for a run) into a colleague who teaches with me at Marianopolis College. I asked her, "What are you going to be doing for the next three weeks?" and she answered, "As little as possible!"

I have to admit her answer got me thinking. That's because I plan to spend the next three weeks (before classes start) by WRITING UP A STORM! I'm only about five chapters from the end of the manuscript I've been working on since May. It's just a first draft, but my goal is to get it all "out" before school starts. Then, in the first few weeks of school, I'll slowly start the first revision.

I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I WASN'T OBSESSED WITH STORIES! Maybe I'd be spending the next few weeks doing as little as possible, too. All this storytelling is hard work -- and it does cut into my socializing opportunities. (Lately, I've had to decline a number of coffee and ice cream dates!) On the other hand, NOTHING I DO MAKES ME FEEL AS HAPPY AS WRITING. Not even cooking -- or running -- or even boxing! (You do know, don't you, that the new manuscript is about a girl boxer?!)

So, just on a day when I was wondering about my driven-ness and why it is I can't seem to live without having a story in my life, a lovely package arrives in the mail. And inside this lovely package, which comes from my friends at Orca Book Publishers, is an even lovelier thing that seems to me to be a message that I should keep on telling stories: the most amazing beautiful new edition of my novel, Finding Elmo. On the cover is a glossy black cockatoo -- the Elmo of my imagination! I'm posting the pic here too, so you can join me in admiring Elmo!

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I Love it When I Turn on the Radio and ...

I love it when I turn on the radio and they just happen to be talking about the subject I am writing about! It feels like serendipity (ahh what a lovely-sounding word, don't you agree?) ... it feels like it was meant to be ....  Best of all, it feels like someone somewhere is telling me I've been spending the last three months working on the right project!

This happened yesterday afternoon when I turned on the radio in the car and CBC radio book maven Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing American author André Dubus III. Dubus is best known for his novel House of Sand and Fog, but Wachtel was interviewing him about his memoir, Townie, in which he talks a lot about his troubled relationship with his dad and about... get ready, insert drum roll here ... BOXING!!

Did you know my latest project is a YA novel about a girl boxer? Did you know I have been taking once-a-week private boxing lessons with a trainer named Big Ron? Did you know that the trainer in my book is going to be named... Big Ron?

Anyway, back to Andre Dubus III. During the interview, he said so many interesting things about boxing I had to rush out of the car and write them all down. He talked about the feeling he used to have after a street fight, describing it like a hangover. Later, he elaborated, saying the feeling was a kind of "spiritual remorse."

But here's one more treat for you for today. Wachtel asked Dubus whether there are similarities between writing and boxing. How yummy, I thought to myself when I heard this question. Dubus's answer did not disappoint me. He said, "You step into the unknown. You hope everything will turn out okay."

Ahhh, that makes me happy -- both as a boxer (okay, not a very good one, but still) and as a writer. Good luck to you, dear blog reader, as you step into the unknown, too!


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Celebrating Literacy

I'm just back from a party in Old Montreal where we celebrated the launch of the Montreal branch of Room to Read. Room to Read is a non-profit organization that promotes reading by opening libraries and supplying books to impoverished children in developing countries. What makes the program especially interesting is that the books are written in the children's own languages (think Khmer, Nepalese, Tsonga and Bundeli!) and the authors and illustrators come from the countries where the children live. 

John Wood, the founder of Room to Read, came from New York to join the party. That's him at the podium in tonight's pic. Wood was the marketing director at Microsoft, but he gave up that job after traveling to Nepal and visiting a school that had 450 students -- and no books. Wood went on to write his own book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World.

Tonight, Wood told us that Room to Read has already touched the lives of six million youngsters. The organization's goal is to read 10 million youngsters by 2015. Room to Read has a special interest in educating girls, since in too many countries, girls have less educational opportunities than boys. My favourite line from Wood's speech tonight was when he told us, "When the world is full of educated, butt-kicking women, things will change!" Way to go, John Wood -- and way to go, Room to Read! 

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Ever Notice How Stories Lead to More Stories?

  One of the things I love most about stories is the way they lead to other stories.

That helps explain today's pic. In it, I'm sitting outside a coffee shop (see the Bandaid on my nose? I wish I could say I had a small BOXING injury... but alas, it's only a booboo caused by my glasses jiggling when I run) with Talya Pardo, the librarian at Solomon Schechter Academy.

Here's the story behind the pic: A few weeks ago, Talya read my piece in the Gazette about my trip to Holland to launch Een Andere Wereld, the Dutch-language translation of What World Is Left. In the article, I wrote a lot about my opa (grandfather) Jo Spier, who was an artist in Holland and whose talent helped keep our family alive during the Holocaust.

Well, a day or two later, Talya was "weeding" books in her library, looking for ones that were not taken out often. She happened to come across The Story of Louise Pasteur, written by Alida Sims Malkus -- and then she noticed that the biography was illustrated by Jo Spier! And because it was one of the books that was not circulating much, she decided to GIVE IT TO ME!

I never knew my opa illustrated this book -- and am quite excited to have it. I am reading it slowly and of course, enjoying the illustrations.

During our coffee date, Talya told me why she thinks books matter so much to kids: "As a child, books were my escape. They expanded my vocabulary and my knowledge of the world. Books tease your imagination. They make your imagination go -- and keep going!"

Of course, I asked Talya what book she's reading now. She told me it's Robert Jordan's The Gathering Storm -- it's the 11th in a series. Talya says that at her school, quest series and realistic adventures books are especially popular. She has noticed though that "some kids seem to find it hard to suspend their disbelief." We talked about why that might be, and wondered if it could have something to do with T.V. Sounds to me like those kids need to do even more reading -- so they can have their imaginations "teased"!

Hey, Talya, thanks a million for my new old book. I'm glad my story led to this story!


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What Happens When Two English Teachers and a Librarian Get Together for Lunch?

You know what happens when two English teachers and a librarian get together for lunch? They have a blast! (Not to mention that they have loads to talk about.)

I had lunch today with Jean Sancton, who teaches Grade Six at Forest Hill Senior Elementary and the school librarian Maria Cavaiuolo. That's us in today's pic. Jean is in the middle; Maria is on the right. (I met Jean and Maria last year during a wonderful school visit.) And while you're examining the pic, that lovely grey bicycle in the background is mine -- I call it my "Grey Goose."

I WASN'T PLANNING to take notes during lunch -- I was just planning to be a regular person and relax -- only then the conversation got so interesting I reached into my purse for my pen and for a napkin that turned out to be a surprisingly reliable note sheet.

Jean was telling us about an end-of-term writing assignment she gave to her Grade Six students: "I asked them to write to me because it means a lot to me." Jean said she'll always treasure the letters she received. She also noticed that many of them talked about enjoying the same things: "They liked being given time to read on their own. They also liked being read to." And guess what was one of the books they enjoyed most?! The Middle of Everywhere by ... Yours Truly!

Maria told us how she is reading and enjoying Stephen King's new book 11/22/63. "I like it," she said, "because it has a time travel element. There's a character in it, a high school teacher, who has a chance to go back and change something."

I asked Maria what her favourite time of day is for reading. She told me it was morning. (I save my reading time for the evening.) Here's how Maria described the ideal start to her day: "I read on the deck or in the kitchen in the full sunshine. It feels like a luxury."

So, here's my question for you today: What is your favourite time to read?


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I Love Synopses -- Today, Anyhow!

You may recall that two entries ago, I complained about having to write a synopsis (that is basically a fancy word for "outline") for my new writing project.

What happened in between, you must be wondering, that made me entitle today's entry, "I Love Synopses -- Today, Anyhow!"

What happened is I wrote the danged thing. I was grumpy; it took me nearly a full day. I ate half a bar of top-quality chocolate. BUT by golly I DID IT!

And you know what? It was HELPFUL. I tell my students that having an outline is like having a road map. It helps you get where you're going. On the other hand, having an outline (or a map) can be constraining, too. You may miss out on some interesting spots during your road trip. 

I think the reason it worked out for me this time is because I had already written nearly 12 chapters of my manuscript before I tackled the outline. And the good news is that now that it's written, I feel less anxious about the project and IT'S GOING MORE QUICKLY (which is a fine thing because in about six weeks from now this writer is going to turn back into a pumpkin -- did I say pumpkin? I meant to say CEGEP teacher!)

So, today's question: To outline or not to outline? What, dear blog reader, is your opinion?

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Why I Can't Stop Writing

I'm not saying writing is easy. It isn't -- at least not for me.

I'm not saying writing is fun. Though sometimes it can be.

What I am saying is I can't stop.

I write because it's the only way I have to make sense of big overwhelming things.

If you were reading this blog while I was away in Holland for the launch of Een Andere Wereld, the Dutch language translation of my book What World Is Left, you probably sensed that I was overwhelmed by the experience of being back with my parents in the country where they came from -- and where part of the novel is set.

Every night in Holland, I had trouble falling asleep. It wasn't jet lag; it was because there was so much to think about, and process, and find a place for in my mind and in my heart.

But I fixed that on the airplane ride home. That was when I started writing about the experience I shared with my parents in Holland. And guess what? The story I wrote appeared in today's Gazette -- and I can't tell you how glad I am that I wrote it. Because it helped me process a very big, very overwhelming experience. Here's the link to the story. And here's my question for you today: Do you have a story you need to process? Have you thought about putting it into words?

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"Why does everyone hate writing synopses?"

The title of today's blog entry, "Why does everyone hate writing synopses?" comes from an email I got yesterday from Sarah Harvey, one of my editors at Orca Book Publishers.

I have a love-hate relationship with synopses, also known as outlines. And apparently, I'm not alone.

I'm about ten chapters into the project I've been working on this summer. The good news is Sarah likes (she actually used the word "loving") what I've done so far (Yippee! Double yippee because Sarah is a tough critic!). The bad news (well, it's not exactly bad, but let's just say it presents a challenge) is she wants a chapter outline or synopsis of the project.

Some writers swear by outlines. They do detailed outlines before they begin a project, and then they let their outlines guide them through. Other writers, I'm thinking now of Neil Bissoondath, whom I once interviewed for the Montreal Gazette, start their novels by writing just one word, or one sentence, and then seeing what happens after that!

I am somewhere in between. Sometimes, when I write fiction, I feel like a miner, digging my way very slowly, but steadily in the dark, with just a small headlamp to illuminate my way.

But, I've done outlines before and I'm psyching myself up to do one now. I told Sarah she'd have it by the end of next week. This curly-haired miner has some serious digging to do!


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Special Day in Holland: Part II

Today we are in Leiden, my father's hometown.

Last night, I spoke at the Musea Zutphen about my book Een Andere Wereld -- the Dutch language translation of What World Is Left.

Just before my talk, we had a "dol gezellig" (there is no real English translation for the word "gezellig" -- let's just it's cozier than our word "cozy") dinner with Joris de Leur, the publisher at De Fontein, my Dutch publishing house, and also with my Erlijne Runia and her boyfriend Pim, who is also in publishing. And to make the evening even more complete, my brother Mike, who is Montreal's Honorary Consult of the Netherlands, was there with his wife Penny!


Here's a pic of the audience -- with me standing behind my parents. On the left side of the pic, you can see my brother and Penny... and that's Joris sitting in the middle.

Over dinner, Joris made a small speech. I was in heaven again! And I got a chance to tell Joris and Erlijne how I felt they had taken such careful sensitive care of this story that means so much to me and my family.

I want to tell you more about some of the people who were at last night's event, but my dad wants me to go for a walk with him to see the house where he grew up. (I can't very well say no to that, can I?) But I will post one more pic before we go. Have a look at the audience in this pic. Check out their faces, okay?

I'd say my talk went really well... but I can't claim that those people you see in the pic were looking like that FOR ME. That's because I snapped the pic when my mum went up to the microphone and told a story about her own grandmother and then began singing some funny old Dutch songs. As we would say in Canada, the audience "lapped it up"!

Can you tell this has been a special week? How about I ever going to go back to ordinary civilian life? xo from Holland

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Special Day in Holland: Part I

Hi blog readers! If you have looked at my blog before, you'll know that I do many school visits and so it's not so unusual that I post a pic of myself with a group of students. But today's pic is VERY SPECIAL! That's because it was taken at my first school visit ever in the Netherlands. I spent part of the afternoon at Isendoorn College, which is quite close to the medieval town of Zutphen where we are staying and where my opa was born.

I asked the students whether they had ever heard of my opa, Jo Spier -- and one of them told me he knows of Jo Spierlaan, a street in Zutphen!

A student named Florian (that's him in the middle of the pic, wearing a black T-shirt) asked, "Do you have a story of your own?" I thought that was a great question and you know what, Florian? In all my school visits, no one ever asked me that.

(I told him the answer is yes, but that book is not scheduled to come out till fall 2013!)

What, you must be asking yourself, am I doing in this second pic?

Why, smelling my opa's old paints of course!! After the school visit, Christiaan, the curator of Musea Zutphen, brought me and my sister-in-law Penny (I didn't tell you yet, but my brother Mike and my sister-in-law have joined our party now too!) to the museum climate-controlled storage room where they have some of Opa's belongings.

When I was a little girl, I used to stand by Opa's drafting table in New York (he moved there a few years after the war) and watch him draw and paint. Those old paints I am smelling in the pic still have a faint odor -- and when I smelled them, I was briefly transported back in time to those happy days.

On the way back from the museum to the hotel, Penny noticed MY BOOK smack-in-the-middle of a store window here in Zutphen. I got a kindly young man to snap a photo so you have evidence!

Tonight, we're having dinner with my Dutch publisher and editor, then I speak at the museum... but I think I'll wait till tomorrow to submit that report to you, dear blog reader. I don't want to tire you out with all my adventures!!

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Nieuws from Holland!

  Hello hello, blog readers! First, for those of you in Holland, I hope I haven't misspelled "nieuws" -- if I did, send along the correction as soon as possible, okay?

This week continues to be oh-so-wonderful. That's me and my dad in the first pic. We went for a walk yesterday in Amsterdam and when we passed a bookstore, it was his idea for me to go in and ask whether they had Een Andere Wereld -- and as you can see, they did! On our walk, my dad said, "Imagine what it means to us that we left Holland more than 50 years ago and now to have our Canadian daughter publish a book in our language." Also, if you ever wondered where I get my wild hair from, now you have the answer!


This second picture was taken today at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I am with my friend Lies Schippers, project manager for the department of education at the Anne Frank House. I'd met Lies in Montreal a few years ago when she came to talk about The Search, a graphic novel she co-authored.

It was Lies who invited me to the Anne Frank House today for a series of meetings. First, I met with Lies and Teresien de Silva, head of the collections department. Together, the three of us talked about the connection between objects and people and stories. As Teresien told me, "Sometimes you don't know what a seemingly insignificant item can mean."

Later, I met with about a dozen educators working at the Anne Frank House. They included Doyle Stevick, a professor from the University of South Carolina, who is spending a month in Amsterdam. "In education," Stevick told me, "we know how to transmit facts, but changing attitudes is very difficult. The Anne Frank House does that as well as any place I have seen."

Over lunch, Lies described how she and her team work together to create their graphic novels. She says that the process "from conception to birth" takes about two years and involves many meetings. The team begins by identifying the theme they want to work on, then they move to character and plot. Sometimes, there are disagreements. "But," said Lies, "we always look for consensus. I think that's a Dutch thing."

This afternoon, I took the train to Zutphen where I met my parents (they came by car from Amsterdam this morning). Why, you are probably asking, have I posted a pic of my mum on the phone? That's because I rushed from the train station to the hotel to do a radio interview (partly in Dutch!!) for Omroep Vlardingen. At the end, the host asked to speak to my mum -- and I wanted to record the moment because she was just wonderful. Imagine that she said on live radio, "My daughter is a good person -- and good-looking, too!!" (I think I've warned you that she is a little wacky!!)

And in today's last pic (don't worry, this blog entry is almost over!!), you can see my parents and Christiaan te Strake, the curator of Musea Zutphen, where I will be speaking tomorrow night. Zutphen is the birthplace of my opa (that's the Dutch word for grandfather), the Dutch artist Jo Spier.

My talk coincides with a retrospective exhibit of my opa's work together with the work of another Dutch artist, Peter Van Straaten, whose work was heavily influenced by my opa's.

Today's pic is taken in front of a restaurant just outside of town. My mum remembered this building fondly because many years ago, her grandfather lived here. It was, I gather, a kind of seniors' residence in the days before there were seniors' residences.

Christiaan knows so much about my opa! At one point, my mum was telling a story and she said to Christiaan, "Don't think I'm obsessed with my father" -- to which Christiaan responded, "But I am!"



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Interviews in Amsterdam

  Usually, I'm the one with the notepad, scribbling madly! But this week, journalists have been coming to our hotel to interview me and my mum about Een Andere Wereld, the Dutch language translation of What World Is Left.

I included today's pic to give you some evidence of what fun we are having. In this photo, you can see my parents with journalist Marjon Kok, who came to speak to us yesterday. I just e-mailed Marjon a copy of the photo too, with the subject heading: "Do you always kiss your interview subjects -- or only sometimes?"

You see, the thing about my mum is that she is impossible to resist! And when you hear her story you understand that she went through a lot, but that she still has a great sense of humour and, this is most miraculous of all, an optimistic view of life. She is also a little wacky -- but in the very best sense! For example, the other morning, she got annoyed with my father (he was telling her what to do and she hates that) and she hit him (not very hard) with her cane! The other funny thing that happened after that was that a woman witnessed the scene and said to my mother, "Good for you!!"

Another journalist Channa Kalmann also came to speak with us yesterday -- and I'd say she was smitten too with my mum (and also kissed her good-bye!). For me, it's fun to be at the other side of the table this week. Marjon and Channa both had to rush back to their desks to write their stories; I got to relax in the afternoon and meet up with relatives and friends.

Did I already mention that I am feeling really Dutch? In Montreal, I have no cousins. Here, I have many -- yesterday, I spent part of the afternoon with my cousin Josine. We even look alike and we have similar taste in dresses! A few times, we seemed to be thinking the same thing. Her grandmother was very close with my grandmother (not only were they related, but they were good friends too) ... and at the same moment, when we were walking along a beautiful canal, Josine and I said to each other, "Our grandmothers would have been happy to see us here now!"

Some days are difficult, of course; some days, everything feels like a gift. That's what the last few days have been like for me. Wishing you, dear blog readers, days that feel like gifts!

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Meet Someone Very Special!

I always tell my students to avoid adverbs like "very." That being said, I am allowing myself to break my own rule today by introducing you to someone VERY special. That's her with me in today's pic: Hanneke Majoor. Hanneke translated my novel What World Is Left into Dutch, so that the book now has a new life as Een Andere Wereld.

I first "met" Hanneke late last fall (it might even have been December), when she began working on the translation. I'm sure that the two of us must have exchanged at least 50 e-mails and maybe more. Hanneke had AMAZING questions about details in the book. Often, I had to go back for answers to my mother, upon whom the story is based. My father, who handles e-mail at their house, got involved too!

But somewhere over the course of all those e-mails, Hanneke and I became friends! That was confirmed yesterday when we met in person for the first time. Have you ever really looked forward to meeting a person? If you're lucky, the person turns out to be as wonderful as you expected. But... if you're really really (today is a day for many adverbs!!) lucky, you like the person even MORE in person than you did before you met her. THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED TO ME!!

When I read aloud from Een Andere Wereld yesterday, I had the feeling that my book was even better in Dutch!! The funny thing is that if my family had not moved to Canada, I would have written the book in Dutch -- of course, then, I would not have met Hanneke!

I also had the pleasure of meeting Hanneke's husband Peter du Gardijn, whom I also knew a little because of things that Hanneke had told me about him -- such as that he got hurt last year while skating (don't worry, he made a complete recovery!). Peter is an author too. I am looking forward to reading his poetry collection Onder de Dieren and his novel Nachtzwemmen. Since they are both in Dutch, I will have to go very "langsam" (slowly)... Dutch friends, if you're reading this, please forgive my poor spelling!

Okay, time for me call it a day (another happy one!) in Amsterdam. Will try to post another update soon!


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Writing to You From Heaven!

Goeje dag from AMSTERDAM! The reason I told you I am writing from heaven is that I am here -- with both my parents -- to celebrate the Dutch launch of Een Andere Wereld (the Dutch translation of my book, What World Is Left).

See that man with me in the third pic? He's my cousin Marteyn, a law professor at the University of Leiden, and the woman smiling at us is my Tante Lies. About 50 people came out today for my presentation at the Jewish Historical Museum here in Amsterdam. Many of them were old friends of my parents -- and relatives, of course.

I'm so happy and excited to be here I can hardly write a word! On the other hand, I have many things I want to tell you, dear blog reader. So many stories are connected to the story of this book... here's one for today. You may know that What World Is Left is a historical novel based on my mum's childhood experiences in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp. My mother, who's now 83, has forgotten many things about what happened to her during the war. But one story which she remembered and which I used in my book is about a little boy who arrived late in the war to Theresienstadt. His name was Ronald and he was also from Holland. My mum kept an eye out for the little boy and in a way, he gave her hope for the future. Well, guess what? Ronald WAS AT THE MUSEUM TODAY. When I finished speaking, he also said a few words! (That is Ronald in the first picture today.)

In today's second picture, you can see me with my mum in front of the Hollandsche Schouwburg -- that is the building in Holland where my mum was deported from in 1943. Today was the first time she stepped foot in the Schouwburg since then. (The Schouwburg is now part of the Jewish Museum here.) You can imagine that it was an emotional visit -- my mum managed not to cry, but I did. In a way, I think I cried for her. But you know what? I didn't cry out of sorrow, I cried out of happiness. The tears came when Annemiek Gringold, the Schouwburg historian, showed us a copy of an old registration card with my mother's information on it. At the top of the card, someone had written the words: "In leven!" (with an exclamation mark). That means "Survived!" (I found the exclamation mark important too!!)

Tonight, we're having dinner with Hanneke Majoor, whom I met for the first time this morning. Hanneke translated my book into Dutch and I loved her before I met her because she was so kind and sensitive and understood exactly how much the project means to me and to my family. We'll also meet her husband Peter, a Dutch author. Another friend from the De Fontein publishing company is coming too.

I'll try to keep writing blog entries all week to keep you posted about our adventures. Wednesday, I go to the Anne Frank House. Thursday, we launch the book at the museum in Zutphen, my grandfather's hometown.

This morning, in the journal I write in every morning, I said how grateful I am to so so many people for helping me tell this story first in English and now in Dutch. Most of all, I have to thank my mum -- she taught me everything I know about storytelling and about courage!

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Guess Who Won the Combat du Livre at Ecole Antoine-de-Saint-Exupéry?

I know, I know... you figured out the answer to the question, "Guess who won the Combat du Livre at Ecole-de-Saint-Exupéry?" : ME! (Why else would I have asked the question!)

You may remember, dear blog reader, that I was invited to Ecole-de-Saint-Exupéry in May to defend my book, Poupée -- the French language translation of On the Game. Today's pic is from that event. In it, I am standing next to publisher Robert Soulières and author Michel J. Lévesque.

The students had to vote on several French language YA books and it was a fiery battle. Apparently, I managed to sway some of the undecided vote with my lively speech -- even if it was delivered with an English accent. So, thanks to all of you at Ecole-de-Saint-Exupéry. I didn't tell you, but I was hoping my book might win!

Speaking of accents, I am gearing up for my big trip to Holland, where I'll be doing several events in connection with the Dutch translation of What World Is Left, now christened Een Andere Wereld in Holland. My parents are coming, too, and will join me at most of the readings and talks I'll be doing. So, today, they came over to my house for lunch -- and to listen to me read -- in Dutch -- from the book.

The reviews of my performance were mixed. My father thought I was not very good and took too long; my mother thought I did a great job (mothers always think that, don't they?) Not to worry if you are in Holland and coming to hear me speak and read -- I still have several days to practice. I may not speak Dutch very well, but I do "fersta" (means "understand") almost everything. Which makes me an excellent undercover agent.

Do I sound excited about all this? If I do, it's because I AM! I promise to write some blog entries from Holland and to post pics, too. And I'll also be reporting on the experience for the Montreal Gazette. FUN!!!

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Coming Soon -- Pyro!

I thought you might like to have a sneak peek at the cover of Pyro -- it'll be out this coming fall.

Pretty cool, no? Actually, I should say pretty hot!

I got interested in the topic of fire when we bought a house with a fireplace. One of my favourite things is that moment when the fire catches -- and whoosh! the flames turn orange and start crackling.

The next thing that happened was that I started asking students (my own, and others in the classes I have visited) about their experiences with fire. I was especially interested in the kids who have started fires. I wrote down everything they told me, and stashed it all in a file marked "fire." And then, well, the story started to grow in my mind. And a narrator came to me. This one's name is Franklin Westcott and my editor, Melanie Jeffs, says he's snarky. In fact, she says that my characters are getting snarkier with every book I write!

Of course, I had to do other research too. Luckily, I managed to get hold of Dr. Kenneth Fineman, a California psychologist who treats young fire-starters. He was kind enough to make time to talk to me last summer. Dr. Fineman helped me understand what motivates kids to start fires and how they can be helped to stop. I used what he told me to develop my story.

Let me know what you think of the book cover. I LOVE it!

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Objects Have Stories Too...

It isn't only people who have stories; objects do, too.

Today, I have a special story to tell you. It's about this little brass monkey-man charm I'm holding in my hand in today's pic.

My mum gave me the charm two weeks ago, on my 52nd birthday.

I had a vague memory of seeing this charm when my sister and I used to play jewelry store with my mum's baubles. But I never knew its story until now.

As you may know if you have read my book What World Is Left, which is based on my mum's childhood experiences during World War II, my mum was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp called Theresienstadt. She was deported there shortly before her 14th birthday.

She remembers that on the day of her 14th birthday, she was sitting on a stoop in the concentration camp and crying. Another prisoner -- my mum remembers only that she was a beautiful  German Jewish woman -- asked my mum what was wrong. My mum told her, "It's my birthday and no one gave me a gift."

That's when the woman took this charm from her necklace and gave it to my mum.

Last week, my mum had a birthday, too. She turned 83. That means that for nearly 70 years, she has kept this little monkey-man with her. Now it's mine... and I feel a great responsibility to care for it and wear it and share its story. Almost certainly, the woman who gave my mother the charm perished during the Holocaust (relatively few people survived Theresienstadt), but the woman's kindness and generosity live on in this small story.

Can you see why I love stories so much?


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Antonine Maillet -- Part II

Do you ever notice how sometimes the right person comes along at just the right time? That's how I feel about Quebec author Antonine Maillet.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Antonine on-stage two weekends ago for a St. James Literary Society event. Even though I was the one asking most of the questions, I was also busy writing down her answers. I don't ever want to forget some of the wise things Antonine had to tell us about writing.

Here are some of them! Antonine, who is Acadian, writes about life in French-speaking New Brunswick and she explained how important it is to write about what we know. Of course, she put it better than that! She said, "Every writer -- the smallest, the biggest -- they all have to discuss their particular vision. They are the only ones who have seen that small, little corner of life." She also talked about why she likes to write about simple people, like the washerwoman who is the narrator of her famous novel La Sagouine. "It's because," she said, "the little people are never in literature and they belong in literature." (Hey, if you're one of my Journalism students reading this... remember how we worked on coming up with interview subjects who normally have no voice?!)

Antonine was leaving for a week in New Brunswick the day after our interview, but yesterday, my phone rang and it was HER! She had read my book, What World Is Left (the one that has recently been released in Holland as Een Andere Wereld). Antonine told me she had not been able to put down the book! I said how much her call meant to me, and I told her that I've recently begun working on a new manuscript and am struggling with it, the way I always do when I write.

Antonine said just the right thing to me -- and perhaps it will be just the right thing for you to hear, too, dear blog reader. She said, "You are a writer!" Hope her message speaks to you, too!


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