Seeds of a Story: Part 2

On November 21, the Canadian Children's Book Centre Awards will be presented in Toronto. We asked the nominees to tell us about the seeds of their stories, the places from which their inspiration grew. Here are some of their responses. Part One appeared on Monday. 

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Canada Year by Year, by Elizabeth MacLeod, illustrated by Sydney Smith

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

Canada’s 150th birthday was the inspiration for Canada Year by Year. I’m very proud to be Canadian, and I love sharing with kids how amazing our country is.

The book features an event for each year since Confederation, including the first singing of “O Canada” in 1880, the publication of Anne of Green Gables in 1908 and Terry Fox’s run in 1980. I’m especially interested in the incredible people who have changed Canada, so the book also contains more than 50 profiles.

Although I wrote most of the book’s text, some of the entries are from the “The Kids Book of” series. I’m grateful to Jane Drake, Barbara Greenwood, Carlotta Hacker, Pat Hancock, Ann Love, Briony Penn, the late Diane Silvey and Valerie Wyatt who allowed excerpts to appear in Canada Year by Year.

It was important to editor Katie Scott and me that the book consist of more than just the happy stories in Canada’s history. So Canada Year by Year includes the Indian Act of 1876, the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike and 1970’s October Crisis. I’ve given many school presentations about the book and it’s great to discover how much kids already know about Canada’s story and how eager they are to learn more.

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The Snow Knows, by Jennifer McGrath

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

It was January. It had been snowing earlier in the day—the heavy, cozy kind that curls up in the elbows of the evergreens like sleeping cats. I was inside, working on a novel. It was not going well. I complained to a friend.

Go for a walk, my wise friend said. 

I did. 

I put on my snowshoes and wandered into the white-cowled forest. And found stories. So many stories!  Written in hop-a-long hieroglyphs, they scribbled and skittered across the fresh snow: mysteries, thrillers, dramas, comedies. 

(Nature is very prolific.)

Humbled, I returned to my desk and wrote about all the stories the snow knows, and the secrets it shares with those who take the time to see.

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The Artist and Me, by Shane Peacock

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

I love reading big biographies. I love the courage that artists call upon to succeed. I love art. And I don't love bullying. The seed of The Artist and Me came from all of those things. As I read Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh's monumental biography (twice!) of Vincent van Gogh, I felt like I was living the great man's life with him, struggling, trying to stay true to my art, barely surviving. I also felt a small portion of the pain he felt when he was considered a fool and an outsider because of his unusual art and his commitment to it. I was struck by the fact that among his tormentors were children. These strange, long-ago scenes of one of the world's greatest artists being persecuted by children in the streets and countryside of southern France grew vivid in my mind. So, I put together a story of a child who bullied Vincent van Gogh, told from the perspective of the child, in old age. It grew from that beginning into The Artist and Me.

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Shooter, by Caroline Pignat

Nominated for the John Spray Mystery Award and the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award 

Jerry Spinelli gave pre-published me some writing advice. I still think it’s the best I’ve heard: start with an emotionally charged memory. It’s a seed I’ve used in every novel and I think it’s why those stories ring true. In Egghead, it was the guilty feeling of being a passive bystander to bullying. In Greener Grass it was the heartbreak of emigrating and of being the responsible older sister. In The Gospel Truth it was that feeling of needing to please others. 

Shooter’s characters each start with a core emotion I can root in my own high school experiences as an introvert, perfectionist, athlete, nerd, or school president. The rest came from research…lots of research. Each of the five main characters had to be fully developed to feel real.

I wanted to write a modern day The Breakfast Club but it couldn’t be a detention (who has detentions on Saturday?!). When else would a group random kids be forced together? Then, we had a real lockdown at school and as I sat anxiously in my darkened classroom, I thought of the kids caught in the hall, the stairwell, and the washroom. I knew then where this story had to happen.

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Book Cover Niska

Niska, by Étienne Poirier

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

 I was a French teacher in an Indigenous community for nearly 15 years. There, I heard stories about residential schools all the time. In May 2015, when the Canadian government published the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Diane, my publisher, contacted me saying that I should write a book about it. 

At first, I wasn’t interested. I couldn’t figure how to find a way to catch children’s attention on such a sad subject. So my answer was “I’m not interested, but I promise I will try to find an idea today.”

It was a 15-minute walk in the forest to go to work. On the way, I was thinking about how I could find an interesting way to tell a story on such a sad subject. All the sudden, it hit me: the real conflict here was not simply about the residential schools themselves, but instead about Indigenous children not knowing their parents and parents not knowing their children. My story would be the one of a love that couldn’t be and a promise that no one could keep. 

By the time I reached school, I had found the story for Niska. At noon, I reached Diane, and I said “Yes, I’ll do it”!

When We Were Alone, by David Robertson

Nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award

The inspiration for When We Were Alone came from two places. The book was in response to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, where there was a call to develop resources from Kindergarten to Grade Twelve on the history and legacy of residential schools. At the time, there weren’t many books for very young learners on the subject, so I decided that I was going to write one. I’ve already seen, as a result, kids teaching adults about the very same subject.

When We Were Alone, however, is truly inspired by the children who attended residential schools. This is their story. Elder Betty Ross told me about her experience in Cross Lake Residential School one day in a healing room at her office in downtown Winnipeg. Before sharing her story, one that would become my graphic novel, Sugar Falls, she changed clothes into these colorful, flowing robes. I asked her why she’d changed, and she told me that she wore colorful clothes now because they wouldn’t allow her to in residential school. It was a way for her to reclaim identity. That loss of identity, and the empowerment of reclaiming it, was a big inspiration for my book. 

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Level the Playing Field: The Past, Present, and Future of Women's Pro Sports, by Kristina Rutherford

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

Why are women’s and men’s pro sports so different? That’s the question I wanted to answer in Level the Playing Field: The Past, Present, and Future of Women’s Pro Sports. The idea for the book came from its editor, John Crossingham. He has kids who started to question the male-dominated reality of pro sport, and that really resonated with me. When I was little, I had a lot of similar questions, because all the pro athletes I saw on TV were boys. I wondered: Why isn’t there an NHL for women? How come men get paid a ton and some women don’t get paid at all to play? 

Today, as a sports journalist, I tried to help answer these questions in the best way possible: By asking the stars of women’s pro sport. WNBA MVPs and Olympic gold medalists talk about the progress they’ve seen in their fields of play. A fighter explains it’s her job to literally beat people up—a job that didn’t exist for women years ago. A former world No. 1 tennis player talks about how her sport has been a leader in striving for equality in pay.

My hope is that this book not only helped to answer all those questions about women’s sport, but that we’ve also helped inspire kids to continue to push for equality.

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Heart of a Champion, by Ellen Schwartz

Nominated for Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People

Several years ago, I saw a documentary on television about the Vancouver Asahi baseball club. They were a famous Japanese Canadian baseball team that won championships year after year in the Pacific Northwest. They were so talented that they could win games just by bunting, stealing bases, and playing excellent defense in the field—without even making a base hit! All of Vancouver was proud of the Asahis. 

But in 1941, after Japan bombed an American naval base in Hawaii, Canada declared war on Japan. The Canadian government was afraid that Japanese Canadians would be loyal to Japan. So the government decided to move all Japanese Canadians living on the west coast—22,000 people—to internment camps in the interior. The Asahi players were scattered among different camps, and that was the end of the team.

As I watched the documentary, I was dazzled by the skill and dignity of the team. I said to myself, “Why have I never heard of the Asahis before? They were amazing! Every Canadian kid should know about them!” So, because I write books for children, I decided to write one about the Asahis. That is how Heart of a Champion got started.

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Freedom’s Just Another Word, by Caroline Stellings

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

It was a rainy day in April when the seeds of Freedom’s Just Another Word were sown. I had turned on the radio, and when Janis Joplin belted out “Me and Bobby McGee” I said to myself, “I am going to write a book with Janis in it.” I knew, of course, that she had died of an overdose of heroin, but I had never heard of the Festival Express. Known as Canada’s Woodstock, the fourteen-car passenger train roared from Toronto to Calgary in the summer of 1970, carrying the era’s most fabled musicians from concert to concert. When I read that the train had made an unscheduled stop for liquor at a trackside store in Saskatoon, my imagination was sparked. I saw a young black woman, a budding blues singer, absolutely mesmerized as Janis, complete with feather boas and wild hair, is the first to step off the train. The rest of the story wrote itself.

November 16, 2017
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