The Chat with Governor General's Literary Award Winner Erin Bow

erin bow (credit StudioJ)

Erin Bow has won this year’s Governor General’s Award for Young People’s Literature (Text) for Stand on the Sky (Scholastic).

The jury says “In writing that is both evocative and perfectly pitched for young readers, Stand on the Sky tells the heartfelt and gripping tale of a Kazakh girl who, despite cultural barriers, struggles to train a wild eagle. With its authentic voice, the novel transports the reader to the steppes of Mongolia and opens up a fascinating world where age-old tradition is overturned by one young girl’s bravery and determination.” 

Erin Bow is a former physicist turned poet and writer of stories for young people. Her first novel, Plain Kate, won the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. Her second, Sorrow’s Knot, won the Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and her third, The Scorpion Rules, won her a second Monica Hughes Award and was the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for young adults. Erin publishes equally lauded poetry under her maiden name, Erin Noteboom. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario, with author James Bow and their two tween-aged daughters.

 

THE CHAT WITH ERIN BOW

Congrats on your GG Award, Erin. How does it feel to be recognized in this way by your peers?

I’m so thrilled. Stand on the Sky is perhaps my favourite of my books—certainly it’s the most personal, the one dearest to my heart—but despite the deadly blizzards and cliff-climbing and eagle-flying adventures, it’s probably my quietest book. I was afraid it was going to be one of those books that you launch like a paper lantern into the ocean of publishing, to watch it drift out to sea and never be seen again. I was afraid readers would never find it. 
Winning the GG means readers will find this book. Librarians and teachers and parents and booksellers will find it. Kids will read this book. It’s possible that my own kids will someday have kids who will read this book. That’s what this means.

What do I feel? Grateful.

Winning the GG means readers will find this book. Librarians and teachers and parents and booksellers will find it. Kids will read this book. It’s possible that my own kids will someday have kids who will read this book. That’s what this means.

 
Stand on the Sky tells the story of Aisulu, a Kazakh girl who, against tradition, becomes an eagle hunter in part to raise funds to cure her brother, Serik. Tell us more about the inspiration for the story.

When I was small, I used to go tromping in the woodlots beside our house, and one day I found a hawk there, tangled up by its jesses and thrashing about upside down. The falconer came along soon after, but the moment—terrifying, astonishing—imprinted something on my mind. I’ve wanted to write a bird book ever since.   

I’ve also always wanted to write a sibling story. My late sister and I were very different, but very close, and like Aisulu with Serik, I desperately wanted to save Wendy.   

So, for almost a decade I simmered a novel about a boy left at a loose end when his sister falls critically ill. His family were naturalists at a remote station, and when they swept his sister off to the city for treatment, the boy was left almost alone, with the task of re-wilding a human imprinted hawk. The boy-and-hawk story was dear to me, but it was one of those that wouldn’t quite come to life—maybe because I’d written myself into a corner where no happy ending was possible. The boy either fails to rewild the hawk or succeeds and loses her forever. For the sake of my child self and her sister, I so wanted a happy ending.   

Then I saw photographs by Asher Svidensky of young people training in the ancient Kazakh art of eagle hunting. The relationship between Kazakhs and their eagles is different than the relationship between falconers and their birds anywhere else—and they have a whole different notion of rewilding, opening new possibilities for the ending. It was as if my story was struck by lightning.    

Were there any particular challenges in creating Aisulu as a character? What research was involved?

Oh, Lord, the research on this one! When I realized I was going to set my story in Kazakh Mongolia, I stopped writing. I wanted to go there, and find the shape of a story there, not write a story and glue a Mongolian veneer to it.   

I had enough material for a couple of sample chapters. On the strength of those, I got grants from my hometown Region of Waterloo Arts Fund and the Canada Council. I roped in a friend—the photographer and teaching artist Seanan Forbes—and we spent five weeks living with a family of Kazakh nomads on the western edge of Mongolia, where the Gobi Desert meets the Altai mountains. They had three gers (gers are the same thing as yurts), three sons, two daughters-in-law, eight grandkids, five yaks, 350 goats—and two eagles.  

We spent five weeks living with a family of Kazakh nomads on the western edge of Mongolia, where the Gobi Desert meets the Altai mountains. They had three gers (gers are the same thing as yurts), three sons, two daughters-in-law, eight grandkids, five yaks, 350 goats—and two eagles. 

We asked the family to treat us as if we were 13-year-old girls, rather than honoured visitors, and I think they tried—but the truth is we didn’t have anywhere near the competence of Kazakh girls. In a land where milk is everything, I couldn’t milk anything. I once, memorably, attempted to milk a male goat. I suspect they are still telling that story in Ulaan Huus.   

Still, I learned the summer rhythms of a girl’s life: the work, the games, the smells, the skies. I fell deeply in love with the children of the family, especially a shiningly smart girl named Kumsai and a Huck Finn prince of his people boy named Djurshen. They are not Aisulu and Serik, but Aisulu and Serik would not exist without them.  

You’ve published several other award-winning novels for younger audiences. What’s your own litmus test for great storytelling for young people?

I want a book that pulls me and keeps me reading until the water in the tub gets cold. I don’t mean a page-turner, necessarily. I mean an enchanter—a book that just takes you entirely under its spell.  

I don’t much care if such a book is marketed for young readers or adults—but I do think children’s literature has more than its share of enchanting books. Young people are voracious and insightful readers. (Anyone who writes down to them is simply doomed.)  One thing they absolutely demand is that, first, there will be a story, and second, the story will matter. That’s what I want from books, too, so I mostly read kidlit.

    
49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?

There are so many talented authors in Canadian kidlit; it’s a fantastic community to be a part of. We read each other, we boost each other, we help each other along the weird road that is writing and publishing. It’s hard for me to pick among all the great Canadian authors I know.  It’s probably safer to tell you about particular books that were enchanters for me.  

These picks reflect my leanings—towards SFF, toward the hopeful, toward the bittersweet—and of course your mileage may vary. But some of the best things I’ve read this year are The Afterward by EK Johnston, Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman, The Agony of Bun O’Keefe by Heather Smith, Saints and Misfits by SK Ali, the trilogy that opens with The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccerelli, No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen, and the graphic novel—well, graphic short story collection—This Place: 150 Years Retold, whose authors are all Indigenous writers living in Canada.    

**
Excerpt from Stand on the Sky

There was no sign of Serik’s horse.

Aisulu and her brother, Serik, had searching for almost two hours. They’d followed footpaths and goat paths, tracked through sand and skulls and sharp-cornered stone. “Well,” said Serik. “That’s it. Dulat’s going to kill me. I’m going to die.”

Aisulu slung an arm around her brother’s shoulders. “You think that’s bad? I’m going to have to do embroidery.”

They were standing together on top of a shale outcropping, which they’d climbed to use for a lookout. Above them the sky was high and huge and bright, wheeled with birds. Below them the mountain swept away, fierce and dry and the colour of foxes. They could see up to the snow line and down to the power lines and the road. They could see the tracks of the goat herds and the hollow with the three tent-houses — the gers — where their herding family lived. What they could not see was any trace of stupid horses that had wandered off while their riders lay napping in the sun.

And the trouble they were going to be in was feeling less and less like a joke. Aisulu had been fetching water when Serik had come to her for help. Water was her job because she was a girl. She’d hauled pails of water up the mountain so many times that the wire handles had left raised yellow lines at the roots of her fingers.

Right now, Aisulu was meant to be bringing that water back. She was meant to be doing the morning milking of the yaks. Was meant to be churning that milk into butter. There was no chance she hadn’t been missed. Their mother, Rizagul, was probably already planning the embroidery project that Aisulu would have to start when she returned. Rizagul never missed a chance to school Aisulu in girls’ work. Aisulu did not mind girls’ work, but she liked other things too: tending the solar panels that powered their light bulb and their radio, studying math, and riding fast with her arms stretched out like wings. In a land where girls are supposed to have hearts made of milk, Aisulu had a heart made of sky.

And as for Serik . . . Aisulu might have needlework waiting for her, but Serik might have the whack of a folded belt. At fourteen, he was really too big to take a beating — but if he lost his horse their uncle Dulat might make an exception.

On top of the shale outcrop, Serik stood with his head tipped back. He was watching the birds circling overhead. They were huge and black against the sky, a pair of golden eagles. Aisulu knew them well. She’d seen them all season, swooping in and out from a certain crag high up the mountain. For a while there had been only one eagle — the father — but now there were two again. That meant their eggs had hatched.

She watched Serik watching the birds. Serik, her brother: in their faces, they were almost as alike as twins: the same moon-roundness, the same eyes like sunlight through dust, the same wind-burned cheeks, dappled as red as the sunny side of an apple. In the last year, Serik had suddenly grown tall — sprouting in both height and awkwardness — while Aisulu had remained small for twelve, though wiry-strong, and sure-footed as a cat. But as little children they had been inseparable as a pair of puppies. Even now, at an age when girls and boys were pulled apart, they stuck together.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

November 21, 2019
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