Seeds of a Story 2019: Part 1

This week, the CCBC Book Awards, celebrating the best of children's literature in Canada, 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 Two appears later this week.

Read on to discover what books were inspired by an East German museum, the song "What a Fool Believes," two vibrant communities on opposite coasts, and one writer's son's important question. 

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Aftermath, by Kelley Armstrong

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

The “aftermath” in the title is the aftermath of a school shooting and how it affected both the sister of a shooter and the brother of a victim. The story seed came from an article about the online and real-life harassment a sibling’s shooter endured. I knew parents of shooters received intense scrutiny and negative attention—I’d recently listened to an interview with one parent—but the sibling relationship was an angle I hadn’t considered. I was extremely wary of using an actual shooting in a thriller, but dealing only with the aftermath seemed like a good way to tackle a sensitive subject, and my editors agreed. 

It takes over two years for my books to go from seed to shelf, and by the time the book came out in 2018, school shootings were so much a part of the regular news cycle that my story was already outdated—the kind of national attention Skye receives as the sister of a shooter wouldn’t happen when such events are so commonplace. I also worried that, without the context of the timing for writing the novel, it might seem as if I tried to profit from an ongoing national tragedy. So as happy as my publishers and I were with Aftermath, we did minimal promotion for it, which makes me extra happy to see it nominated for these awards.

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Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, by Jonathan Auxier

Nominated for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award

Sweep was directly inspired by reading Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies ... a very old, very strange book about a boy named Tom who worked for a chimney sweep. I had always imagined chimney sweepers as cheerful people (probably due to Mary Poppins), but Kingsley's book revealed something altogether more horrifying: cleaning chimneys was brutal and deadly ... and for hundreds of years it was done exclusively by children! That book set me on a decade-long journey to discover what it was like for these poor children who kept our chimneys clean. It really is one of the bleakest chapters in this history of labor (Google it, if you dare). It was in the midst of all that reading that a new story started to grow in my mind—the tale of a 11-year-old sweep who finds a monster living inside a chimney flue. And that's how Sweep was born! 

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The House of One Thousand Eyes, by Michelle Barker

Nominated for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

The idea for this novel came to me in pieces. 

I was doing research for a different novel when I came across an excellent book called Stasiland, by Anna Funder. After the Berlin Wall came down, Funder interviewed several people who’d survived the East German regime, including the members of a band called Renft. Overnight, their music disappeared from every store in East Germany because the government decided they were too subversive. 

I was stunned by this. I began thinking about a character, an East German writer who crossed the line with the authorities. I wondered what it might look like to make someone disappear.

Then I visited Stasi headquarters, the place Berliners used to call "The House of One Thousand Eyes." Part of it has been transformed into a museum, and Erich Mielke’s offices have been left intact. I was walking through there when it occurred to me: someone would have had to clean these offices. Someone would have been privy to the most secret information in the country. 

What if one of the cleaners was a teenaged girl? What if this girl’s uncle was the writer who had disappeared? What if she was the best placed person in the world to find out what had happened to him? 

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A Girl Like That, by Tanaz Bhathena

Nominated for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

There’s a saying in Gujarati that I heard as a child, a joke of the darker kind, made funny for its rhyme—Masi gare de phansi—and dark for its meaning—"My aunt will strangle me with a noose." The seed for A Girl Like That began with this saying and the idea of a girl running away from home because of some conflict with her aunt. As a writer, I often like placing my characters in horrible situations (or where the conflict is) and so naturally I wondered what it would be like if the girl had an accident—and if she died in the process of running away. A ghost telling her own story seemed like an interesting narrative device to me, much like The Lovely Bones. I never thought about the journey this story would take me on, or the way it would challenge me to explore my own history and pain through the voices of four teenagers in Saudi Arabia.

People often think that I wrote A Girl Like That with an intentional message. But I am not so clever. In reality, all I was doing was answering questions for myself. Who was Zarin Wadia? What happened to her and why? It’s only now, when I look at the book as a whole that I can see its various themes and underlying messages. I hope that teens who read the book are ultimately inspired by Zarin’s refusal to be defined by anyone except herself, Mishal’s courage to choose her own path in life, and Porus’s endless capacity for love. No matter how many books I’ll write, I’ll always remember this one. 

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Africville, illustrated by Eva Campbell

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

I asked some friends to model for the figures. I took some photos and then made sketches for the pages. Also I got images of scenery from the author and publishers. After tat was the painting stage. I wanted the pictures to look vibrant and happy so I used a lot of color! Another fun part of the process was imagining the story and creating the pictures to portray the story.

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The Journey of Little Charlie, by Christopher Paul Curtis

Nominated for the Geoffrey Bilson Award: Historical Fiction

It’s funny, all of my stories come from the same place: being a careful observer of my surroundings. A comment overheard on the street or in a restaurant, something one of my munchkins has told or asked me, and random day-to-day interactions with other humans are a gold mine for ideas. Maybe it would be more accurate to say these observations provide meat and muscle to the skeleton of whatever idea is floating around at the time.  I often am not certain what the story is about until well into the process and I find these random over-hearings and observations add texture and depth. 

In The Journey of Little Charlie, an example of this process can be found when Charlie sees an awkward encounter between a young African-Canadian boy and the girl he has a horrible crush on. I was sitting in the mall while my family shopped and saw a boy trying desperately to impress a young girl. My heart bled for the poor sap! It reminded me of a line in a song from Michael McDonald called "What A Fool Believes." The lyric is,  “She had a place in his life . . . he never made her think twice.”  I was able to implant the situation into the book even though it took place in 1848. 

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Trash Revolution, by Erica Fyvie

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

After many years of educational editing, my first book as a writer began with a question. Yasemin Uçar, a wonderful editor at Kids Can Press, asked, “Could you write a proposal for us that explains how everyday things are recycled?”

It turns out, sadly, I could not. Because in my research on recycling, I became pretty captivated by waste. Waste had energy, power in it. We were wasting everything, including our waste. Why? 

So, I wrote about that. Before writing this book, I think I pictured recycling like some giant do-over. You can use whatever you want and recycle it and voilà! It just disappeared. The leftover waste was not a huge consideration. I was hopeful and naïve and needed to educate myself, and in the process hoped to educate others. 

My research made me realize that what we throw away says just as much about us as what we keep. Our trash is honest. That the thing we appreciate about something could also be the thing we grow to detest, like plastic’s durability or electronic upgrades. And that one of the first lessons we learned in school still applies: we’re responsible for cleaning up our own messes.

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Mustafa, by Marie Louise Gay

Nominated for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award and the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

The story of Mustafa was inspired by a trip I took three or four years ago to France, Croatia and Serbia. All through the summer while I was in France, I heard reports on the radio and other media about the refugees crossing through fields and barbed wire fences, traveling in trucks or on foot, on back roads, all trying to find a way to a country that would accept them.

When I arrived in Belgrade there were many families of refugees camping in the parks under makeshift shelters waiting and resting before the next leg of their trip. What struck me was, while most of the adults looked tired, worried and tense, the children were, in general, playing, running around, rolling in the grass behaving as all children do. Their resilience impressed me and inspired me to write the story of a young boy who tries to find his place in a new country after having traveled for a very long time from his war-torn home. I wanted to underline his resilience and his discovery of this new world. Mustafa, of course, suffers from loneliness, invisibility and an impossibility of communication but still he is curious, observant and imaginative. He wants to understand and belong. 

Which is what we all want.

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Book Cover Seb and the Sun

Seb and the Sun, by Jami Gigot

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

Seb and the Sun is a book so close to my heart. My first book, Mae and the Moon, was inspired by my daughter, and for my second book I wanted to make a story for my son, so the main character of this story is inspired by him and his curiosity and sense of adventure. We live in Vancouver near the sea, and love combing the beach for treasures such as sea glass, crab claws and whatever else we might find, so that gave me some inspiration for the setting. But ideas really starting clicking in place after I visited a fascinating old mining museum called Brittania Mine, about an hour north of Vancouver. It’s an incredible place, and was once a very isolated community only accessible by boat. The museum has many old photographs and I got the sense that there was a warm-hearted feel to the town. It was that feeling of community and warmth between neighbors that I wanted to get across in this story. For the artwork, I scanned in pencil drawings and digitally painted the images with a stylus direct on the computer screen. 

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Africville, by Shauntay Grant

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

My nominated work is inspired by Africville, a Black community that existed on the shores of the Bedford Basin in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Halifax city officials decided to raze the community in the 1960s; homes were destroyed and residents were moved out.

Africville is based on the text of a poem I wrote while sitting at the site of the former community, which is now a public park. When writing about a specific place, I’ll often go there to draw inspiration from the physical land. And so this poem was one of the gifts of that experience, sitting near the shores of the Bedford Basin in Halifax, listening, and reflecting on the community of Africville. 

One question that consumed me during the writing process is, “How do I make the Africville story accessible to children?” Often when we hear about Africville, we hear about the negative things that were done to the community—all of the unwanted services brought by the city like the garbage dump, railroad tracks, slaughterhouse, the hospital for infectious disease, and lack of sewers and running water. But that is only a part of the story.

For more than 150 years Africville was a vibrant, self-sustaining community. It was a home. And this celebration of home is a central theme in the book.

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Piper, by Jacqueline Halsey

Nominated for the Geoffrey Bilson Award: Historical Fiction

The seed of my story was a full-sized replica of a very old ship. 

I had just finished writing Bluenose Adventure, a book about children working on fishing schooners, including the Bluenose, during the 1900s. At the time, Bluenose II was going through a lengthy and very costly rebuild with cost overruns making headlines almost daily. As I finished my story I remembered that in Pictou, Nova Scotia, there was another full-sized replica of a famous ship—The Hector. I knew very little about The Hector but reasoned that a significant story must have led to the expensive project of building this replica. I discovered that The Hector brought the first Scottish immigrants to Canada. As I did my research I was struck by the similarities that eighteenth century immigrants had with today’s immigrants. These people left their homelands due to oppression and the inability for their families to thrive. After a hazardous sea crossing, they had the fortitude and strength to make a new life for themselves in a country with an environment completely alien to the one they’d left. Add to this background a forbidden musical instrument (who isn’t intrigued by anything forbidden?), and Piper came into being.

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The Funeral, by Matt James

Nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

The Funeral was definitely born of a real-life encounter and also of a question. The question was asked by my son, Julius, as we were in the car on our way home from his first funeral. He asked, “is Uncle Frank still a person?” 

The book sorta fell together from there. I started writing the story based on my experiences as a child and my observations of my two sons as they had their own experiences. More than my other projects, where I was the illustrator only, I built this story up with pictures and words coming together simultaneously to make a story rather than adding to one that existed already in the form of words.

In some ways The Funeral felt more collaborative—is that a thing? Can you collaborate with yourself?—than the other books I’ve illustrated—I would never have called an author and asked them to cut text in order to have the pictures tell the story, but with this book there was a lot of give and take.

October 15, 2019
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