Revisiting a Children’s Lit class – 35 years later…

I had a chance to visit a Canadian Children’s Literature class yesterday at Acadia University. I took a Kids’ Lit class at Acadia back in 1980; a specifically Canadian course didn’t exist then. As I told the students yesterday, we couldn’t have had an author in to visit the class because the people who wrote the books we studied were all long-dead:) I totally loved seeing so many copies of The Power of Harmony in one room, and I’m honoured that the professor thought my book worthy of inclusion in her course. Thank you, Andrea!

I had fun putting together a PPT I thought uni-age students would be interested in. Here are a few clips:
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The title page of a picture book I did for Children’s Lit in 1980 – I think my drawing skills were at their peak on this project. The story is pretty bad, but I remember labouring over the project for hours on end. I had no aspirations of writing for kids at that time, so it’s funny I held onto the book for all these years.

 

 

Image used to demonstrate one advantage of being a writer – you can wear whatever you like. Usually for me, it’s PJs, but the fur coat and hat are always an option, I suppose. Especially with the snowy winter we’ve been enjoying in Nova Scotia this year:(

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A pic from 1963, used to illustrate “killing off your darlings” (in the writerly sense) – my sister, Nance, didn’t make it into the final version of The Power of Harmony, but Cheeky (who I wish I’d kept so I could take him with me on school visits) has a cameo.

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And a picture I keep on my bulletin board, given to me during a school visit a few years ago. I love it for so many reasons – because I’m a pig fan, because she wrote that I was her “favrit other,” and because she also mentions that everybody says she’s a great artist. My favorite part of yesterday’s class was when a quiet young woman at the back came up to me at the end and almost whispered to me, “I really liked the book.”

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When I was a student, I was absolutely petrified when called upon to speak in class and avoided it when possible. Writing is such a solitary activity most of the time, but because of my writing, I’ve had to learn to speak in public. I still find it hard to articulate thoughtful answers to questions a lot of the time, but I’m better than I used to be at thinking on my feet, as they say. Happy last four weeks of winter!

 

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Voices from the Past – Deleted?

I was looking through some of my mother’s things the other day, in particular a gold damask clutch full of letters and telegrams exchanged between my parents and IMG_20140514_0003grandparents as Mum and Dad were about to get married – in a hurry as was often the case in those days… 1957. More than fifty-seven years ago. That’s Nana and Gramps Mingo in the picture – aren’t they cute?

Each of their voices came across so loud and clear in their writing – it was almost as good as having a video or audio recording, yet they’re only words on paper. So I got to thinking – where is that kind of record being kept these days? letter writingTexts, email, phone calls/messages –  all are either deleted or forgotten about as soon as they’ve been read/heard. Seems  correspondence we keep and re-read is yet another casualty of our disposable world. Nothing lasts forever these days – coffee makers, stoves, fridges, washers, dryers, clothing, even pictures, and, sadly, lasting, honest person-to-person communication – ie. letters.

As authors, we infuse our fiction with lots of emotional detail from our real lives; our books will live on after we’re gone, but it’s not at all the same as writing a straight-little girl at mailboxfrom-the-heart note to somebody. It doesn’t take long to dash one off; on the rare occasion I write a letter, I often type it, simply because my handwriting is so atrocious – even Don can barely read my grocery lists.

I suppose the Internet was supposed to put an end to paper, but that hasn’t kept my filing basket from filling up with meaningless stuff. I’d prefer letters. Last week, I spent ten minutes digging up an address, then another ten writing a letter to legendary kids’ author, Patricia MacLachlan, whose work I’ve admired for years. Her book, Edward’s Eyes, is so incredibly perfect that I had to tell her. imagesI wonder if she’ll write back to me…

I miss getting letters, and I’m happy I’ve hung onto some old favourites – it’s so lovely to hear people’s voices long after they’ve died. Don’t you agree?

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Reading through Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2014

When Kirkus put out its annual list of the best kids books of 2014, I immediately went to my local library’s site. I live in a very rural area of Nova Scotia, but the library system had 9 of the 10 I requested on their shelves! Their book buyer must be making good choices. I’ve been reading through the books, and a couple have stayed in my mind.

Rain Reign, by Ann M. Martin. Rain ReignThis is the story of ten-year-old Rose who describes herself as having “high-functioning autism.” She’s obsessed with homonyms and Rain, a stray dog her father found wandering in a rainstorm. The story is told by Rose, and the author does a super job of telling the story exactly from Rose’s point of view. There were a couple of things that bothered me a bit: a) each time Rose writes a word that is a homonym, she lists the others in brackets – ex. Rose (rows) – this device wore on me after a while; b) because Rose is on the autism spectrum, she tells her story very honestly and simply, and this led to a little less emotional oomph in certain sections than there might have been. There are undercurrents of potential abuse which are handled very deftly. Overall, I was totally invested in Rose’s very believable story.

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, by Jack Gantos (a Kirkus Finalist).Joey I’ve read other middle grade novels by Jack Gantos, and apparently this book is the fifth and final book in a series about Joey Pigza who lives with ADHD, poverty and neglectful parents. Gantos captures Joey’s voice so well that I really wondered if he has ADHD himself or if he lives with a young person who does. Parts of the story are a little over the top in terms of wondering – could that really happen? But it’s funny, poignant and a little exhausting as the reader lives inside Joey’s “wired” mind, experiencing first-hand his sometimes sad and scary, but always exciting, world.

I have to put in a plug for a book that really made me giggle recently – Chip Wants a Dog, by William Wegman.chip In this photographic picture book, Chip, a well-dressed Weimaraner, wants a dog, not realizing he actually is a dog (probably because he dresses like a human). I’ve always loved Wegman’s books, and the expressive Weimaraners look so funny living like humans.

I hope your holidays will be filled with lots of time to curl up with a great book (or ten)! And I wish you peace, good health and joy in 2015!

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Bye-Bye, Breath Grabber!

Jenn, the ten-year-old protagonist in my novel, THE POWER OF HARMONY, is terrified of water, not-so-affectionately known as “The Breath Grabber.” That was me for my entire life. (Note I said “was,” as in past-tense)

While I was in Lunenburg this fall, I finally overcame my lifelong fear of water, with the help of an 85-year-old Wise Wonder Woman named Jean and dozens of YouTube videos. When I took swimming lessons as a seven-year-old (see pic), we were told to jump in the 12-foot end the very first day, an obviously misguided approach to teaching kids to swim. When I finally fought my way back to the surface, it was game over for me and water for the next 47+ years.img003

This fall, I spent many, many hours in the warm salt-water Lunenburg pool, gradually learning to trust in my ability to float and convincing myself I wouldn’t inhale water so long as I kept my mouth closed and didn’t try to breathe underwater. I had to talk myself out of panicking over and over again.

But I did it!

And now I can comfortably swim the breast stroke, frog kick and all, keeping my head above water for the most part. I haven’t ventured into the deep end yet, but I will someday. And I want to take some lessons to learn a speedier stroke, like the front crawl.

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Okay, I don’t look quite like the woman in this picture, but I’m so proud of my brave self. Overcoming my fear of water was something I never thought I’d become strong enough to do.  How about you? Any lifelong fears you’ve conquered?

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LESSONS LEARNED FROM MY HERMITAGE

I learned a few things while living and working alone in Lunenburg, NS these past five weeks:

1. Five t-shirts, three sweaters, a raincoat, and three pairs of pants is all the clothing you need for five writing weeks. And hand-washing underwear/socks is pretty easy.

2. Quiet (inner and outer) is conducive and necessary to productive writing time (I suppose I already knew this).

Sigh ...

Sigh …

3. Laundromats are interesting places but it’s easier to do your laundry at home.

4. About-to-expire spinach, a can of chicken noodle soup, an onion and some curry powder = a delicious supper. And Chapman’s fudge sticks ($6 for a box of 18) provide excellent incentive to keep writing.

5. Strangers are more likely to talk to you when you’re alone, and even invite you to go for coffee.

6. The camaraderie among badminton players is the same at every club.

7. There is no better way to “find” your characters than walking the paths they may have walked 250 years ago.

8. It is possible, and hugely satisfying, to write 1,000+ words daily (not including the rewritten/deleted words) for 33 consecutive days.

9. Enjoying your own company is a necessary life skill (although writers are really never alone, thanks to the characters living in our brains and hearts).

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THANK YOU ARTS NOVA SCOTIA for the grant

and the opportunity to completely immerse myself in my characters’ world.

Have you ever had a chance to retreat from the world?

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WHAT WOULD YOU BE?

If you had a do-over, I mean; a chance to go back to the beginning of your working life. This thought popped into my mind today as I drove past a car accident that had just happened. It appeared both drivers were out of their cars safely, but there was significant damage and other people (who looked very capable) had stopped to offer assistance, and a woman on her front lawn was already on the phone. The young male driver looked incredibly distraught; he was wringing his hands, in fact. Maybe he had just gotten his license. Maybe it was his parents’ car and he feared they’d be less than understanding. Anyway, my instinct was to stop and offer to help. Help do what? Give him a hug? If only I had some medical background, or counselling skills, I could have offered to help. But I knew I’d be useless.

I’ve always envied people with those skills, people who remain calm, cool and collected in a crisis, people who don’t get queasy around injury and illness. Life savers. I’m the kind of person who almost faints when she goes to pick up her husband from wisdom teeth surgery because there’s a trickle of blood on his chin. Uh-huh.

So, since I could never have become a medical person (due to queasiness and almost failing high school chemistry) or a counsellor, I might have liked to be an artist, except for the fact my talent stalled in about grade 4 and never restarted. But when I see inspirational scenes like this, in Lunenburg Harbour (especially when I’m writing a novel set in 1753 Lunenburg):

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I really understand what motivates people to try to capture such elegance in art. But I’ll leave that to them and stick with words.  If you click the picture, it looks more impressive when it’s larger. (the tall ship, BTW, is the Peacemaker, a barquentine owned by The Twelve Tribes, a religious group (?) with 50 communities in North and South America, Europe and Australia)

At this stage of life, I realize there are some things certain people just aren’t cut out to do – for a multitude of reasons. But if you had a do-over, if you were 16 again and thinking about a career, what would you be?

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One Person’s Opinion

If you’re like me, your writer’s ego is slightly delicate (like one of these Ukrainian eggs).eggs

 

I try to feel hopeful when I find a new review of my work online, but cautiously hopeful. It is only one person’s opinion, right? I read books every week that I don’t absolutely love. School Library Journal (SLJ) is a big US review agency, so having a book reviewed in SLJ is good publicity. So, when I found a SLJ review of Rocket Man, I read it slowly. But what’s this? Bob O’Neill? My protagonist is Bob Prescott. Maybe the reviewer, from Fairfax Virginia, was writing to a deadline. She felt the basketball and net on the cover was misleading as the book isn’t really about basketball – I beg to differ, although the book is, of course, about more than the sport of basketball. And I still haven’t figured out this bit:

The book’s brevity (of) pages may appeal to reluctant readers,although the dialogue has a distinct after-school special feel.

 Overall, the reviewer did a fine job of summarizing the book, and it’s an okay review.

But then, on Google Books, I came upon this review, for The Power of Harmony:

i love this book! although at times its sad its always got me on the edge of my seat making me want to finish the book in one sitting. The power of harmony makes you smile tear up and want to go find the people in the book in real life and either hug them beat the up or help them. this booked is filled with emotions as sadness but at the same time happiness. I wasn’t sure that Jan Coates would be a good author but after reading this book i Know for a fact she is.  XOXO  providence 

So whoever you are, providence – this grateful writer thanks you for the hugs and kisses, for taking the time to review my book, and reminding me why it is I write.

What do you think – reviews, the good, bad and ugly? Helpful, hurtful? All of the above?

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