Celebrating Girls and Women

My little town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, is having its own version of the Women’s March on Washington tomorrow, with participants, as one voice, reading Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” (Performed so beautifully by Ruthie Foster in this video.)

The basic principle behind the March is that:

“Women’s rights are human rights, regardless of a woman’s race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age or disability.”

I got to hang out with young people yesterday, one of my favourite parts of being a writer. The diversity of Toronto city schools is inspiring, and it was great to see and hear the many vibrant, engaged and engaging, girls in those classes – the future. Rise up and stay strong! Let your voices be heard!

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A town isn’t a town without a bookstore

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”

Neil Gaiman

People-watching for a couple of hours in a small-town bookshop, like Wolfville’s The Box of Delights, box-of-delightsis always an interesting way to pass the time. My mum owned a mostly-used bookstore for the last 25 years of her life. She was passionate about The Book Nook, aptly named since it’s pretty small. In response to a request, Mum could always put her finger on any book on her crowded shelves. In these days of online shopping, MumI’m happy to see that people still want that kind of personal service in choosing books. As an author, I sure appreciate booksellers hand-selling my books!

This time of year, bookshop customers come with lists, some taking off their coats and spending an hour or more carefully choosing gifts. Brushing her fingers across an embossed cover, one woman smiled, telling me how books are a tactile experience for her. Reading on an e-reader or laptop just isn’t the same experience as holding a book, looking at its cover each time you open it, carefully placing a bookmark each time you close it. I most often have two or three books on the go at once, scattered around the house. Somehow books on an e-reader seem more disposable to me, and I’m more likely to abandon an e-book part-way through.

When I travel, I do like to have library books downloaded to my laptop, just because it’s easier. A market share analysis shows that sales of e-books published by the big 5 (Random House, etc) have plummeted from close to 40% in early 2014 to close to 20% in early 2016. http://authorearnings.com/report/february-2016-author-earnings-report/ The only group showing an increase in e-book sales during that two-year period is indie publishers.

It’s a tough go for independent bookstores today, with the big guys selling the season’s most popular titles for $15, when the usual retail price is $30+.  In this increasingly competitive bookselling world, choosing to shop at indies is the only way we can help ensure their survival. The best kind of people work in bookshops, and in a town of 4,000 (plus 4,000 university students), we’re so lucky to have The Box of Delights on Main Street as a community gathering place for booklovers. Thank you Hilary, Mitzi, and all!

Thanks for being with me on my blog this year; happy holidays and a healthy, contented 2017 to all of you!

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On the Ground, in Nova Scotia Schools

Nova Scotia public school teachers are in a difficult position, possibly poised to strike; something nobody in the schools wants. Image result for teaching is a hard jobI really fear they’re up against the wall, and if they want change, they need to stand firm. If you’ve never spent time in a school lately, I’m pretty sure you’d be shocked at the myriad of challenges students bring with them to school each and every day. Beyond academic struggles, kids have to deal with family break-ups, socio-economic, emotional and behavioural difficulties, including pent-up anger, violence and mental illness. And then there are the kids who are simply unable to “play nice” with others, for a variety of reasons; the ones constantly seeking attention, the ones looking to be loved. The magnitude of these  complicating factors has to be overwhelming for teachers, especially given the fact there are so few educational assistants in elementary classrooms these days.

As one young teacher recently told me, (after telling me about a year spent with two students in her upper elementary class, one who came to school each day wanting to kill somebody and the other who wanted to kill himself) it’s not that there’s not enough money for education, the problem lies in the allocation of those financial resources. There are too many people in offices being paid too much money to create more paperwork for the people on the ground, in the schools. Teachers want to teach, they want to help kids succeed and be happy, and they need sufficient time, energy and assistance in the classrooms, to do their jobs. Period.

And don’t even get me started on the many school libraries that are now staffed by part-time volunteers (thank goodness for those parents), rather than dedicated librarians. How did reading get lost in the educational shuffle? In rural areas, the school library is often the only library available to kids, the only source of good books.

A couple of smiles from recent school visits. Kids always want to know how old I am – big thanks to the grade 3 student who, when I said that I’d seriously started writing toward publication when I was about 40, exclaimed: “You mean you’re older than 40 now!”  I guess when you’re 8, 40 seems super old. And a big smile to the grade 2 boy who, in writing/drawing about Nature’s treasures, wrote me this poem:

The grass is green,

the sky is blue,

Nature is beautiful,

and so are you!

Thank you to all the schools who invited me to visit through the Writers in the Schools (WITS) program over the past six weeks – it was such a pleasure spending time with your enthusiastic, eager kids. Keep up the great work!

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Kids Are Still Kids

jan-coates-2I’ve been doing some school author visits lately, and it’s always interesting walking into a classroom full of strangers, most often from grades primary to eight for me. I like kids, their honesty, energy and enthusiasm, and doing school visits really inspires my writing; it’s a great research opportunity. For the most part, students are attentive, and they can ask some pretty funny questions, often about my dog since I include Charlie in my PowerPoint, along with my other family members, the people who help me be a writer on a daily basis. Giving four presentations in a day pretty much tires me out – how do teachers do it day after day?

The thing that always strikes me is that kids are still readers and they’re still p1000574kids, despite the internet, technology, etc. that brings the world to their fingertips regularly. There are still shy kids (often those paying closest attention), bold kids looking for a laugh, in-between kids, and, sadly, left-out kids. Middle-school students are still trying to figure out their place in the group; the “cool” kids are still trying to stand out in various ways and venturing into the confusing, yet thrilling, world of relationships.

 

I always browse the bulletin boards at schools. I took these pics when visiting a school in BC during TD Book Week last year. One thing I’m careful about these days is to never gender-specify when calling p1000578on a student. There are always plenty of volunteers willing to share their writing, and it’s not always the “out-there” kids you might expect. I ask volunteers who want to present to write their own names on the board. One grade 8 student, in a classroom featuring a rainbow flag, proudly told me they’d made up the spelling of their name – Jaycob. Generally, it seems like kids today are a lot more free to express themselves, to be who they want to be than in my long-ago school days, when everybody seemed to be conservative and fairly conforming. Maybe I’m being naive, but I’m cautiously optimistic that this means the adults of the future will be more accepting and open… What do you think?

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Free Stuff That Makes Me Smile

I’ve been making a conscious effort to be thankful these days, maybe because Thanksgiving’s coming (and both kids and partners will be home!); here are some of the free things that have brightened my days lately:

*Walking through the woods, really paying attention, marvelling that the ingredients to grow such massive trees are all contained within tiny acorns, pinecones and prickly horse chestnuts.summer-2010-005

*The excited little love whimpers Charlie makes when we pick her up from the kennel.

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*Sun lace on the ground tatted by sunlight dappling through the trees.

*Surfing Kijiji, an endless 24/7 online yard sale.

*Weekly visits to the library and walking out with hours and hours of reading enjoyment in my bag.

The Wolfville Library

The Wolfville Library

*Browsing the racks/shelves at used clothing/junk stores like Guy’s Frenchy’s, Value Village (said with a French accent) and Goodwill. This is not usually free as I often find some bit of treasure to take home.

*The Canadian health care system. Okay, I realize we pay for it through our taxes, but it is nice to seek medical attention without worrying about how you’re going to pay for it.

*Hiking and biking trails, especially the parks, TransCanada Trail system and Rails to Trails here in Nova Scotia.

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*The salty smell of the sea and the shushing of the surf, beachglass, sunsets, shells and beach art, like this:

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*Google with all its blogs, YouTube videos and how-to sites – the answer is always on there somewhere if you spend enough time looking… Here’s one of creative illustrator Sydney Smith (transplanted Nova Scotian) doing an illustration for GRANT AND TILLIE GO WALKING (by Monica Kulling) – fascinating!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dwpwc6NU3Ew  Again, this isn’t exactly free, but almost…

What’s been brightening your days lately? Thanks for stopping by, and Happy Turkey Day!p1010677img_3579

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Harry Chapin – Thanks for the Stories

I know all the lyrics to several Harry Chapin songs, mainly because they were an important part of my growing-up years, I suppose, that angsty trying-to-figure-yourself-out time. I got to see him in concert in Halifax shortly before he died. Most often I can’t even remember song titles, let alone lyrics – you know what I mean? But his, I remember.

Part of the reason his songs are memorable is because they tell lyrical stories; they have a beginning, middle and end, something all writers value, and he created very real characters, made us care about their lives. I sometimes wish I was musical; it must be so fulfilling to put words to music and be able to sing your stories. I read somewhere that Cat’s in the Cradle, Harry’s 1974 hit, made more fathers feel guilty than any other song – not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but like so many,  I love the song, for its tune and its message.

One of Harry’s brothers, Steve, owns a campground on Nova Scotia’s south shore, and each year for the past 30 he has hosted the Chapin Family Concert. Brother Tom (who does excellent music for kids and their adults – I know a lot of his lyrics from playing his tapes for my kids back in the day) and his now-grown daughters, The Chapin Sisters, various local musicians, and Jen Chapin, Harry’s daughter and New York jazz singer, sing, jam and entertain. I can’t remember when I’ve spent such a pleasant afternoon, singing along with a couple of hundred other people in the middle of a grassy field near the ocean in the sunshine. That’s Jen with one of Harry’s grandsons on the right – I wonder if he has, or ever will have, any idea of the far-reaching effects of his grandfather’s music? And I wonder how many more amazing songs Harry could have given us if he hadn’t died at 39…

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It seems like I’ve been here before;
I can’t remember when;
But I have this funny feeling
That we’ll all be together again.

No straight lines make up my life,
And all my roads have bends;
There’s no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.  Harry Chapin, Circle (my favorite lines of his)

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ANNE MURRAY AND ME!

Anne signing

Like a lot of girls growing up in 1960s Nova Scotia, I idolized Anne Murray and admired her effortless, pure singing voice. The idea that a young woman who grew up just down the highway from me could become an international singing sensation boggled my mind. I’ve always liked to sing and I could sing along to a lot of Anne’s songs, but I was crazy-shy and had no aspirations about following in her footsteps. But when I set out to write The Power of Harmony, about a girl who does want to be a famous singer, I had to include Anne. And I did, including setting the story in her coal-mining hometown of Springhill, NS.

After the book came out in 2013, I mailed Anne a copy, and she responded by email, thanking me. She also tweeted about the book during Canadian Children’s Book Week in 2015, reaffirming my belief in her being a down-home, thoughtful, genuine person, despite her fame.Anne July 30, 2016

Finally this weekend, I got to meet Anne, at her annual meet-and-greet at the Anne Murray Centre in Springhill. By the time Shannon and I arrived, she’d been smiling for over five straight hours, but she seemed genuinely happy that I’d stopped by, and she remembered the book (she didn’t, however, say she’d read it (yet), but that’s okay:) She’s 71 now, and she looks fantastic, as you can see! I got her to sign a copy of my novel for me – possibly it’s the only one-of-a-kind autographed item I’ll ever own.8ee011c0-6e82-4308-bbf7-ef4ee3e106af

How about you? Ever met anybody famous? Were they as nice and personable as Anne?

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