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Part Two: Seeds of a Story

Nominees for the Canadian Children's Book Awards share the inspirations for their celebrated works. 

Next week, on November 18 in Toronto, the 2015 Canadian Children's Book Awards will be presented, celebrating the best in Canadian kids' books; you can explore the shortlists here. And this week with "Seeds of a Story," nominees will be sharing their literary inspirations with us—where did these stories come from? Where they inspired by real life encounters? Amazing flights of the imagination? 

The answers to these questions are various and curious, each one a story of its own, offering remarkable insight into some excellent books. And don't miss Part One: Seeds of a Story from earlier this week. 


Book Cover JUlian

Julian, by William Bell

Nominated for the John Spray Mystery Award

My novel, Julian, begins on miserable, snowy March morning when Aidan, a foster child, steps off the bus at the art gallery on a class field trip. Aidan feels a vague stirring of adventure inside, a sense that today will mark a new turning in his life. And Aidan was exactly right. That day unleashes events he could never have expected and puts him on the path to completely change his life: within weeks, Aidan becomes Julian and strikes out with a completely new identity and existence. In this novel I was interested in exploring a concept that I think has universal appeal: what does it take for you to reinvent yourself? And to what extent can you really escape your past? But at its core, Julian is about things that matter to me and to us all: family, and belonging, and love. This novel is the story of two orphans, Julian and Ninon, who meet and begin to find family and belonging and love together. I hope you enjoy it.


Book Cover From Vimy to Victory

From Vimy to Victory: Canada's Fight to the Finish in World War I, by Hugh Brewster

Nominated for the TD Children's Literature Award and the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's Non-fiction

It all began with a ghost story. I’ve had Will Bird’s World War I memoir, Ghosts Have Warm Hands, on my bookshelf ever since using it as reference for my 2006 book, At Vimy Ridge. In it, Will describes how his brother, who had been killed earlier in the war, led him away from a place that was about to be bombed on Vimy Ridge, thus saving his life. When I told this story at a school talk a few years ago, the students were gripped. I’d been considering writing another book about World War I to tie in to the centennial commemorations that would be taking place in 2014-18. I wanted to write about the last 18 months of the war when the Canadians were considered the “shock troops” of the British army and led the way to victory in one battle after another. But this encompasses a lot of military history which can be challenging to convey in an accessible way. Then I thought of Will’s ghost story and re-read his book, highlighting some of the best anecdotes. These provided the thread I needed to tell the story of this very important time in our history. And so, From Vimy to Victory: Canada’s Fight to the Finish in World War I, begins with Will’s brother paying him a ghostly call as he huddles in a bivouac on Vimy Ridge and ends with Will helping a German soldier escape after the armistice on November 11, 1918.


Book Cover From there to Here

From There to Here, by Laurel Croza, illustrated by Matt James

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

What happened to the little girl in I Know Here, after she moved to Toronto? I wish I could say I came up with the question that launched From There To Here but...I didnʼt. Groundwoodʼs Patsy Aldana and Shelley Tanaka did.

And I wish I could say I thanked them and got to work, immediately, writing the story to answer their really good question. But...I didnʼt.

I should probably mention that, at the time, I was feeling sorry for myself—some stories Iʼd written had been rejected—and I was wallowing in impossibilities, not possibilities.

So...I dismissed the idea.

“There is no story, that little girl moved to Toronto and six months later she moved to Montreal,” I said.

I was stuck, in real life facts, forgetting the little girl was no longer strictly me and my memories but more a character that Matt and I had created.

Fast forward, a couple of months, to a Saturday afternoon. I was lying on the couch—nursing a nasty cold and still feeling I-will-never-have-another-book-published sorry for myself—alternating between reading The Globeʼs book section and staring at the wall in despair when, suddenly, out of nowhere, a thought popped into my head: I donʼt have to stick to facts. I can write the answer to the question based on memories of moving to Toronto AND Montreal, I can BLEND them.

I got to work, immediately. Thank you, Patsy and Shelley! 


Book Cover Starting from Scratch

Starting From Scratch: What You Should Know About Food and Cooking, by Sarah Elton and illustrated by Jeff Kulak

Nominated for the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's Non-Fiction

When I was researching my non-fiction book, Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, I visited a cooking school in France where they teach kids to cook. Really cook. They don't make kid food like pizza and muffins but rather teach children to make escargots, fish and other real foods. And they give them real cooking tools to use too—like chef's knives. I was inspired by the French approach to teaching kids about food and cooking that has faith in their ability to eat like adults. I went home to Canada and was wondering what I could do to help get kids really cooking when an editor at OwlKids asked me about what I thought of a book for kids about food.

I hope Starting from Scratch helps to inspire a new generation of kids to make roast chicken and lasagne and aloo gobi and enchiladas on their own, from scratch. Another man I interviewed about teaching kids to cook said he wants to inspire young people to have an imaginative food life. So do I. So that when they say they are hungry they don't reach for a box or a bag but rather dream up all the wonderful meals they could prepare.


Book Cover Any Questions

Any Questions, by Marie-Louise Gay

Nominated for the TD Children's Literature Award

After 30 years of meeting with children across Canada in libraries, bookstores and schools, I had noted down a list of questions that children repeatedly and enthusiastically asked about my work and my creative process, as well as their funny, strange, imaginative and surprisingly personal questions about myself. From "Can your cat fly?" and "Have you ever touched a snake?" to "Where do your ideas come from?" and "How did you learn to draw?"

What inspired me most was their boundless curiosity and their limitless imagination as well as their need to know how they could write a story, create the illustration and find ideas. So I set about answering their questions. From my notebooks and journals, I chose which questions I could weave into a story about writing a book. But I did not want to write and illustrate a how-to book on writing. I wanted to engage children in a playful, dynamic and creative conversation about the different ways they could go about inventing a story with words and pictures. So that is how I was inspired to write a book about writing a story-within-a-story with the help of the characters I created: children, talking trees, disgruntled snails, pterodactyls, lost polar bears, purple beasts and a shy young giant...


Book Cover The Story of Owen

The Story of Owen, by E.K. Johnston

Nominated for the Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy

I wish I could remember what I was thinking right before I had the idea, but I never can. What I do remember is this: I was at a Starbucks in St. Albert, Alberta, working on another project, when suddenly I saw Lottie Thorsgard on the Burlington Skyway, slaying a dragon. At first I wasn't sure how Canadian the book was going to be, but by the time I had sketched out 500 words of the first chapter, I knew I was going to take every opportunity to make the story as Canadian as I could. A lot of my inspiration came from my own high school, the towns I grew up in, and music. It was fun to make the world as "real" as possible...right up until a dragon flew into a scene.


Book Cover The Unspeakable

The Unspeakable, by Caroline Pignat

Nominated for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People

The sinking of the Empress of Ireland on May 29, 1914, was Canada’s worst maritime disaster, and is one few people today know much about—lost in both the St. Lawrence and in history. What had happened in those 14 minutes? Why had we forgotten? The more I learned about the ship, the sinking, and the stories of the people aboard, the more excited I became about sharing it.

Of the 12 stewardesses, one survived. Imagine that. What it must have been like to be her—trapped below as the ship tilted, to survive when others had not, or to walk the rows of coffins looking for missing loved ones? I found all that extremely moving and at times overwhelming. But the writing came fairly easy because I had imagined it so vividly. (If anything, it was the romance scenes were difficult. :))

Although the shipwreck is a pivotal event, Unspeakable is really a story about moving beyond grief, guilt and regret. It’s about owning and sharing our unspeakable stories so that we can heal. Because, as Ellie learns, living is so much more than just surviving.


Book Cover Pablo

Pablo trouve un trésor, by Andrée Poulin, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant

Nominated for the Prix TD de littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse

On les appelle pepenadores. Pablo et Sofia, les personnages de Pablo trouve un trésor, sont des enfants chiffonniers. De leur bidonville, ils partent chaque jour travailler dans une immense décharge à ciel ouvert. Fouiller, trouver, se battre, échanger, vendre : voilà leur quotidien.

Ces enfants chiffonniers, il y en a des milliers d'enfants, qui travaillent dans les montagnes de déchets d’Afrique, d’Asie ou d’Amérique du Sud. J’ai vu des photos sur le web. Beaucoup de photos, trop de photos…

Cette histoire, j’ai médité longtemps avant de l’écrire. J’ai pesé soigneusement chaque mot. Je voulais un récit qui montre la crasse et la cruauté, mais aussi la joie et l’espoir. Je voulais présenter la pauvreté des personnages mais sans les juger, ni les plaindre ou les prendre en pitié. Tel était mon grand défi en écrivant Pablo trouve un trésor.


Book Cover The Bodies We Wear

The Bodies We Wear, by Jeyn Roberts

Nominated for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

After my father died, I spent a lot of time soul searching. I remember thinking how badly I wished there was a way to see my Dad one last time. I had horrible anxieties and a lot of sleepless nights because his death challenged my beliefs. This led me to multitudes of answered questions, mostly about what happens when we die. Is there Heaven? Nothing? If energy can't be destroyed, where does it go? What about our consciousness? And then the big question came: "What if there was a drug someone could take that would allow someone to see Heaven?" What would happen? Would people embrace such a thing or would it tear society apart? And a novel idea was born.


Book Cover A Brush Full of Colour

A Brush Full of Colour: The World of Ted Harrison, by Margriet Ruurs

Nominated for theTD Canadian Children’s Literature Award 

I knew teacher and artist Ted Harrison when I lived in the Yukon. I loved his colourful art that is so cheerful to have on the wall. While doing author visits to many schools across Canada, I often noticed Harrison prints on the walls of classrooms, offices or libraries. But most children didn’t know anything about this kind and generous man who put Yukon on the art map. I wanted them to know about this kind teacher who encouraged children to be creative. 

“Can I tell your story in a non-fiction picture book?” I asked Ted. He was thrilled because he and his wife (a kindergarten teacher) loved kids. Katherine Gibson and I combined forces to tell Ted’s story, illustrated by his own wonderful art.

His story is one of being a successful immigrant, of being a supportive teacher. But mostly his story inspires children to follow their hearts. “Art is the last great freedom,” Ted Harrison said. He painted the world the way he saw it: as a colourful, happy place. And in doing so, he became one of Canada’s most recognized artists. 


Book Cover Dance of the Banished

Dance of the Banished, by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Nominated for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People

Two local historians suggested we get together over a cup of coffee. They had come across a batch of old newspaper clippings and they wanted to share them with me. Those WWI-era news stories were about a group of Ottoman immigrants from our hometown who had been rounded up in the middle of the night on false allegations of treason. My Ukrainian-born grandfather had also been unjustly accused, and like these men, he'd been sent to an internment camp. I had written books about the internment from a Ukrainian perspective, but these Brantford men were not Ukrainian. I plunged in, piecing together the story of Ali, interned in Kapuskasing, but also of Zeynep, the woman he left behind, and that's when I made an astonishing discovery, that her story was intertwined with another topic I've written about extensively—the Armenian Genocide.


Book Cover Underground Soldier

Underground Soldier, by Marsha Forchuck Skrypuch

Nominated for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People

The seeds of this story were planted from my own family tree. When my Ukrainian-born grandfather came to Canada before World War I, he was forced to leave behind his mother and sister, and because of war, his internment and revolution he could not get them to Canada. His mother died as an exile in Siberia after WWII. His sister was executed by the Soviets and buried in a mass grave. When I discovered that his sister was a sniper with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, I felt a responsibility to try to piece together what life must have been like for her and others of her time who lived between the two most brutal dictatorships of the twentieth century. While doing research I tracked down Professor Peter Potichnyj, who was a teen soldier in the UPA but also the editor of a massive collection of primary documents about the underground army. The character of Luka was inspired by Peter, and my great-aunt was the inspiration for Martina.


Book Cover If

If: A Mind-Bending New Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers, by David J. Smith and illustrated by Steve Adams

Nominated for the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Non-Fiction 

If: A Mind-Bending New Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers came, at the beginning, out of my 26 years of work with students in grade seven; during the course of each year we would have fun doing all kinds of exercises to learn about scaling up and scaling down, and some of the pages in the book came directly from those days. Other pages developed as my editor and I worked on the manuscript, adding sidebars, adding new topics, and, importantly, writing the essay at the end for teachers and parents about how to use the book with children.  For example, the playground balls representing the sizes of different planets is actually something my students and I did each year, on the school soccer field; in the book I encourage others to try this too. 


Book Cover the Most Magnificent THing

The Most Magnificent Thing, by Ashley Spires

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Prize

I was trying to write story and it just wasn't working. The more it didn't work, the more I got angry. I completely melted down. If I couldn't make this story work then I was finished. Done. Career over. Then I realized that I had seen many children experience the same creativity-induced emotional breakdown that I was suffering. It dawned on me that experiencing failure, and refusing to quit, was the real story. That night the draft for The Most Magnificent Thing poured out of me and within a week, my editor and I had the book up and running.


Book Cover Why We Live Where We Live

Why We Live Where We Live, by Kira Vermond, illustrated by Julie McLaughlin

Nominated for the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's Non-Fiction

Where did the seed for my non-fiction kids’ book, Why We Live Where We Live, come from? A long car trip with my family. (Boredom is a writer’s best friend.)

We were bumping along a country road, passing cornfields and dilapidated barns on the way to my in-laws’ house in small town Ontario. The kids in the back seat were getting squirrely.

“What do you want to listen to?” my husband asked over the din.

In the end we settled on a podcast about urban farming. The presenter was fantastic—and made the point that cities have only been able to develop because humans grow food far away, ship it, unpack it and sell it.

Bingo! I had an idea for a book. I quickly typed two questions down in the notes app on my phone: 

Why do we live where we live?

How, as humans, do we make it possible?

For weeks I couldn’t stop thinking about these 15 words. I jotted down more notes: Why do we live on Earth? Why would someone willingly live near an active volcano? Why do ghost towns spring up? And why the heck would anyone want to build a water-sucking city like Las Vegas out in the desert? That’s nuts.

I’ll admit it. I have a very busy brain and I couldn’t let this book go. So a couple of months later, when my editor asked me, “So, Kira, do you have any new books for me?” I answered,

“Well, I have this one idea….”


Book Cover Hope Springs

Hope Springs, by Eric Walters and illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award 

(Note: Walters is co-founder of Creation of Hope, an organization which supports an orphanage, schools, a library and water projects in the Mbooni District in Kenya.)

The second rainy season didn’t come. We had run out of water. We sent our children from the grounds of the residence down the side of the mountain to the nearest source—a small puddle of water that pooled out of the rocks. With the drought being so intense there were always dozens and dozens of people waiting to scoop water into their containers. Our children were told that there wasn’t enough water and that they “didn’t belong there” and forced to leave without water. We sent down adults at night and shipped in water. We were building a well but had hit a rock the size of a car. Eventually we went down 72 feet. We now had water, but the people at the bottom of the hill still had almost none. We talked to the children about how desperate times cause people to do desperate things. We decided we wanted to ease their desperation. Hope Springs is the story of how this all evolved, told through the eyes of Boniface, one of the children in our residence.  I was there in 2013 when the well was opened. Since then it has provided, clean, plentiful water for all.  Where there is water there is hope.


Book Cover Blues for Zoey

Blues for Zoey, by Robert Paul Weston

Nominated for the Amy Mathers Award For Teen Fiction 

Kaz, the young narrator of Blues for Zoey, describes his story as a jigsaw puzzle of many pieces. The same is true of my inspiration for the book; there were several. I wanted to write a protagonist with an ethnically mixed background similar to my own, someone for whom ethnicity and identity are simultaneously meaningful and meaningless. There were also musical inspirations. When I was a teenager, I became obsessed with gravelly voiced singers, from Louis Armstrong to Leonard Cohen. I wanted a figure like that at the centre of the book. Hence, Shain Cope. Another inspiration was insomnia. I’m often a fitful sleeper and so I occasionally fantasise about the opposite affliction—sleeping too much—which is how I arrived at the imaginary illness, “somnitis.” Finally, I adore the particular brand of mystery that features in the book (which I won’t name for fear of spoilers). I had always wanted to try writing that kind of story. Thank you for the nomination! It's a great honour.


Book Cover Nancy Knows

Nancy Knows, by Cybèle Young

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

I was walking my son to school one day, and he was telling me a very detailed story about his latest creation in a computer game called Minecraft. It was a replica of a farm we used to visit and loved very much. But I knew we were almost late for school, and so I cut his story short. 

This made him upset. And kind of furious. He insisted that if he couldn't tell me the whole story right then and there, he would forget it—and it would be gone forever. 

I couldn't argue with that. 

I, too, felt that way often—constantly forgetting important things that I feared I would never be able to retrieve. 

That afternoon I gave myself a rare gift: an afternoon nap. It was in this state of relaxation that one of those most “important things” popped back into my mind—clear as a bell. Our minds are a marvel. And though my son doesn't love naps yet, Nancy Knows that sometimes they're not a bad idea.

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