In 1992 I became a sportswriter by accident. I had been on Parliament Hill for 14 years and was in a small dispute with my editor at the Ottawa Citizen over parking. We who worked on the Hill thought the paper should pay for parking if, as the paper had stated, it no longer wished us to avail ourselves of the free media parking at the bottom of the Hill by the river.
The editor, Jim Travers, took me to lunch and told me he had solved my problem: “From now on you’ll be parking at the Civic Centre—we want you to cover the Ottawa Senators.”
But if that was happenstance, it was nothing compared to how I became a children’s author.
I had never written for children, did not read children’s books— had not read many as a child, even, as I much preferred comic books. But Doug Gibson, then publisher of McClelland & Stewart, wanted to talk to me. M&S had heard from librarians and teachers that the reasons boys did not read much was because there were few books out there on subjects that fascinated active boys. He wanted me to consider writing hockey books for kids. There hadn’t been a hockey series, he said, since Scott Young’s books some two generations back.
I thought about it. Why not try it? Trouble is, I thought in today’s hyper-active world, hockey alone wasn’t enough. So I added mystery—though I hadn’t read mysteries, either. And since I travelled a great deal and saw lots of hockey rinks, why not put a “travel” aspect in as well. So I began reading and studying my sister’s mystery collection. I searched through bird and animal books for a name and thought the word “Screech” might amuse young minds so went for the Screech Owls.
And since there likely wouldn’t be more than one or two books on the Screech Owls, I decided, almost as if an inside joke, that I’d make them a United Nations of a team, representing the multicultural side of our country. I based one character on the Japanese-Canadian kid next door, another on a Lebanese pal of my son Gordon. I turned Gordon more or less into the narrator, calling him Travis Lindsay and saying he was distantly related to “Terrible” Ted Lindsay of the old Detroit Red Wings. I made the best player on the team a girl.
What the heck? I may as well amuse myself.
I never saw the success that was coming. One book was soon three. For the fourth, I told Doug Gibson, I was going to send them to a hockey camp and have them solve a murder.
“You can’t do that!” I was told in a meeting with editors and sales people. “You can’t have a murder.”
“Let me ask the readers,” I said. Kids, after all, have supposedly seen 12,000 television murders by the time they reach high school. I went to a school, asked a group of grades five and six and they howled with laughter at the idea that they weren’t mature enough to deal with a murder mystery.
So I started killing people off. Never in a grisly way, but in a way to set mysteries rolling.
I began to take the team to different places I’d been assigned to in my work. New York City, Florida, Vancouver, Nunuvat, Australia, Stockholm, London, Nagano, Japan….
No one ever questioned how a team from a small town in Ontario could travel the world so much. Imagine the bottle drives….
Soon the books were out in French, then Swedish, Finnish, Czech, even Chinese. The Chinese versions were sent to me. The covers were all wizards and magic—far more Harry Potter than hockey.
It wasn’t long before we realized, through letters and email, that the Owls were getting as many young girl readers and boy readers. But such a difference! The female readers knew the books better than I did, pointing out that Sarah’s hair was blonde in this book but “mousey” in that book. And while boys wrote asking if they could be on the team, girls wrote asking if Sarah and Travis could go out on a date together.
The books sold so stunningly in Canada—1.5 million and counting—that, naturally, it was presumed they would be a hit in the United States. But little did I understand the world of publishing. In New York publishing circles, hockey is considered barbarian. I was told by a major publisher that they loved the characters, loved the mysteries, loved the action.
But…..would I be willing to change the hockey team to a soccer team?
Of course not. The reason the Screech Owls work so well—despite the unlikelihood of such a team, despite the absurdity of the travel—is that kids say the hockey is accurate. They can feel the game, and it feels right to them.
(It better. I have been playing, coaching and covering the game now for nearly 60 years).
I thought I would quit at six, then 10, 12, 20 and finally did seem to quit at 24 books. But then along came Tundra Books in 2012 with a whole new concept of design and marketing, and so I agreed to write five more and am enjoying it immensely.
Now when I go someplace special—I am just back from Ufa, Russia, where the World Junior Hockey Championship was played—I arrive with the characters in my head.
I look for all the trouble that Nish can get into.
I look for the possibilities of a plot—perhaps with a murder, perhaps not.
I look for a good hockey rink with all sorts of scene-setting possibilities.
And I simply let them go in my head and trust, at some point, they’ll pop out in a book.
MacGregor's Screech Owls series has just been relaunched by Tundra Books. And yes, they're endorsed by Wayne Gretzky. Check out Face-Off at the Alamo and all the others!
Roy MacGregor is the author of Home Team: Fathers, Sons and Hockey (shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award); A Life in the Bush (winner of the U.S. Rutstrum Award for Best Wilderness Book and the CAA Award for Biography); and Canadians: A Portrait of a Country and Its People, as well as two novels, Canoe Lake and The Last Season. A regular columnist at The Globe and Mail since 2002, MacGregor's journalism has garnered four National Magazine Awards and eight National Newspaper Award nominations. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, and was described in the citation as one of Canada's "most gifted storytellers." He lives in Kanata.
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