Sketches of Cuba 2018

I got to visit Cuba for the fourth time last week; it is a beautiful country, its people so warm, friendly and hardworking, and it’s so very different from our life here in North America. I took some mental notes on the bus ride back to the airport:





Sketches of Cuba 2018

University-educated bus guide,

fluent in four languages,

entertaining with his dry sense of humour;

is he happy?

horse and buggy carrying uniformed girls to school;

boy pumping water using an ancient hand pump;

powdery sand stretching to infinity,

outlining the turquoise ocean;

bright splotches of yellow popping out of the green;

signs of Irma,

uprooted trees, missing roof tiles;

cinderblock homes,

windows shuttered up, blocking the heat – no glass?

men, the same vintage as their bicycles,

pedalling down dirt lanes – s-l-o-w-l-y,

sniffing dogs trailing along behind;

bamboo fields

and neat rows of green

meandering up hillsides toward distant mountains;

people chatting in corner cafés – not Tim Horton’s,

waiting, for what?

Time stands still.

Jan L. Coates

Doodling the winter away …

I’ve been doodling the winter away (with water color pencils), and having so much fun! I started selling some cards at my local book shop, The Box of Delights, and amazingly, some people are actually buying them! The whole thing reminds me of the FIFTEEN years I spent making toddlers’ clothing and selling my cuddle duds at craft fairs – too many hats, bibs, jumpers and pajamas! But, hey – I got to spend a lot of quality time with my kids when it mattered most. It’s fun having a new creative outlet, trying to combine my love for picture books with words. Sorry the reproduction quality isn’t the best, but technology remains a challenge … Stay warm out there!


Wishing You Good Health, Peace of Mind and Joy!

We weren’t along on on this camping trip, but Liam and Rachel got engaged shortly afterwards – another daughter! It’s fun to scroll back through the year’s pictures and memories. Here are some highlights from the 2017 chapter of my life story…

I’ll remember 2017 as the year I started exploring art – water color pencils are so much fun!

Signed two new book contracts this year, plus this one coming from Nimbus in 2018!

Having both kids in Georgia at the same time – such a treat! Super proud of Liam who passed his CPA exam, and Shannon who’s about to become a teacher. And they’re both stellar people!

We didn’t break any distance or speed records, but what fun biking the trails of Nova Scotia (and Ireland). We’re at Kejimkujik Park here.

Had the huge pleasure of visiting with hundreds of young readers this year, including this group in Toronto (part of the DeMar DeRozan All-Star Reading Challenge). Nothing like seeing so many copies of your book in young hands!

30th Anniversary – same clothes as in 1987!

Toured bitterly cold Ottawa with my sister, Nance. Love the library at the Parliament Buildings.

In May, I got to accept the Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award for Excellence in Illustration on behalf of SKY PIG illustrator, Suzanne Del Rizzo. And I got to enjoy the evening with my good friend, Laura Best:)

Beautiful Horseshoe Lake – our second home. Lovely except for the blackflies and mosquitoes…

Proud patriotic day in gorgeous Port Joli, NS on our annual writing retreat with friends Jill MacLean and Jackie Halsey (and Marcia Barss) as we awaited the drive-by of PM Justin Trudeau and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau.

And the Trudeaus did not disappoint – she’s lovely, warm and beautiful. Keji Seaside for a backdrop isn’t too shabby, either.

Ten days stepping back in time exploring Ireland, Scotland and Liverpool – this is Howth, just outside Dublin.



Thank you SO MUCH for being part of my life story this year – every good wish for good health, peace of mind and joy in the coming year!



The Storied British Isles – in pictures

We were lucky enough to spend 10 days this month exploring Dublin, Howth, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Belfast and Carrickfergus  (Northern Ireland) and Carlingford, Ireland. Here are some pictures of things that struck my fancy along the way. I was fascinated with the sheep for some reason, and the miles of stone fences dividing the fields. So much history, so many stories, such beautiful, lush green countryside … We found Dublin to be very expensive compared to the other places, and Edinburgh was our favourite city – the Portobello district is very like the Beaches in Toronto (but with much older houses/buildings). We encountered a few transplanted Canadians, including one woman who grew up in Montreal and had just opened Edinburgh’s first Montreal-style bagel cafe. I love to travel, but home is good, too:)

very cool piece of art at Guinness – the bottom is carved wood and the foam is embroidered fabric.

a job we thought Liam might enjoy – taste tester for Guinness – every day at 10:00 am

Dublin music shop

Molly Malone selling cockles and mussels on the streets of Dublin

Dublin was pretty much shut down upon our arrival due to Hurricane Ophelia – more of a windy day than a hurricane, but schools, banks, etc. were closed for 2 days.

I got to enjoy the balmy weather with some swans and unzip my pant legs:)













My best imitation of a book thief – behind me is a book cage in Marsh’s Library, the oldest public library in Ireland. They would lock people inside to prevent book thievery. Apparently Bram Stoker wrote part of Dracula in this ancient library.

I went for the blond…

Christ Church, Dublin

Church ruins in Howth, Ireland – we did not contact Mrs. O’Rourke about getting the key…

Found this guy at The Beatles’ Story museum in Liverpool

and these guys strolling along the Liverpool waterfront in the rain.







Strawberry Fields Forever – the gate is in front of what used to be a Salvation Army children’s home. They’re now fundraising 10M pounds to recreate it as a training hub for young people with learning disabilities.










Scottish music in the 21st century

Saw some truly amazing buskers – Mary Had a Little Lamb, I think


This castle dominates the Edinburgh skyline, plunging up out of the rock face






Old Town part of Edinburgh – very much like Quebec City, and lots of French restaurants, etc.

Arthur’s Seat (Edinburgh) – we climbed up the treacherous rocky side and went down the easy, grassy slopes.

Proof that we made it to the top of Arthur’s Seat (and just about blew off once we’d arrived)

And at the bottom, we chatted with this guy and his two imported Nova Scotia duck tollers – he told us his Canadian-born mother had four interviews before being allowed to purchase the first one as the breeders want to ensure the breed’s purity.

The Scott Monument, Edinburgh, Scotland – you could climb up a narrow staircase, but we opted out.

Warm and welcoming children’s section of the Waterstones Book Shop in Edinburgh.

Saw various political statements on our travels…

Scottish Storytelling Festival, where we heard some tall tales and someone playing the harmonium.

Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland – gorgeous campus

and lots of uniformed students everywhere.

Gorgeous staircase in The Linen Library, Belfast.

And this interesting sign on the front door of the Linen Library (and elsewhere).

Belfast version of Dollarama

Vintage train station in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland (surely you know the song?) (Performed here by Charlotte Church) The train/bus system is truly amazing.


Downtown Carlingford

Channelling my inner Heidi in Carlingford, Ireland, a charming medieval village, my favourite place on the trip.

“The Irish Lads” didn’t start playing until after the soccer match ended at 10:00 pm on a Tuesday night. Everyone sang along!

Warming myself by a coal fire at Taaffe’s Pub, Carlingford (circa 1600)





Driving 2000 kilometers for a glimpse inside the minds of 3 agents and an editor

On the weekend, I went to a one-day writing workshop in beautiful Belgrade Lakes, Maine. (2000 km return). There were a couple of agents there who are otherwise closed to queries, but after such a workshop, there’s a window when participants can submit to them. Hence, my motivation, and I’ve never gone to any writing workshops south of the border, so this seemed fairly close (before the endless driving). I met lots of great kid-lit people, and there was a ton of useful information offered at the workshop. (which was very well organized, with about 40 writers there as well as 4 agents/editor – Rubin Pfeffer, Ammi-Joan Paquette, Amaryah Orenstein and Christine Krones (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I scribbled down lots of notes, and I thought some of the points might be valuable/interesting to other kids’ writers.

One section of the day was devoted to a “gong show.” A reader read the opening lines of several “blind” submissions, and the panelists put up a hand when they would have stopped reading had this appeared in their slush pile. Only one story was read in its entirety – I was surprised that all four panelists were in agreement most of the time. Here are some of their reasons for refusal, as well as a few other tidbits I took away from the workshop.

*confusing, hard to follow – opening has to invite the reader into the story world; has to be a strong hook.  Don’t scatter too much information in opening pages and confuse the reader just because you know exactly what’s going on.

*1st person is hard to do in a picture book; younger sibling saving the day overdone; keep the same tone throughout a picture book; visualize the art even if you’re not an artist

*slow, didactic openings a no-no. Avoid telling in favor of showing. Avoid repetition and don’t give entire story away in opening pages.

*avoid cliché openings, familiar tone, passive rather than active story. READ A LOT in your genre

*check and re-check for typos, punctuation, etc. These errors aren’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but off-putting just the same. DO NOT DO A MASS SUBMISSION – personalize your query as much as possible

*in a query letter, start with a short snappy pitch, rather than publication bio. Keep it brief, and state genre and word/page count in the query. (ex. middle grade contemporary, 40K words). Think of your query like a movie trailer – read the  jacket flap of books similar to yours, don’t reveal spoilers. Practice by reviewing your book as if it was a NYT book review. Limit the characters mentioned in your query; stick with the protagonist and the essence of his/her story.

*avoid over-dramatization; don’t break building tension with seemingly mundane details (that may be relevant later, but not in opening pages, please)

*surprisingly, a couple of them said they like puns!

*23,000 short for a MG – should be 30K plus; 14 year old protagonist is on the high side for MG

*one agent said she can receive 500 queries a week! (which means you have a 1/10,000 chance of being picked up by an agent, I suppose, if they only take on one or two new clients/year)

* they all said a great story trumps commercial potential as they’re choosing projects to acquire

*PB must be “read-aloudable;” slow narratives don’t work these days.

*avoid changing POV, stick to one voice

* in writing non-fiction, find the story within the facts to keep it interesting

*unless you’re writing something re pop culture, a writer’s social media presence isn’t as important as the story they’ve written.  Submissions by famous people don’t always get accepted:) (if the writing is poor)

*there are so many steps to a book being acquired by a publishing house – marketing, sales, design, etc. The editor spoke of costing out each element of a book’s production. Ultimately (and sadly), publishing is a business.

*follow trends, but keep in mind that books are published a couple of years after the contract is signed, so you have to almost be ahead of the trends.

*it’s important to be upfront and honest – tell the person to whom you’re submitting if it’s been submitted elsewhere (publishers or agents), and especially if you get another offer! A publisher won’t be happy if you’re about to sign a contract and suddenly an agent appears.

*If you’re looking for an agent, best not to submit to publishers at the same time as the “ground is already scorched” if that agent then approaches publishers with your manuscript. (the big 5 publishers are open only to agented submissions anyway)

*one agent said she only skims the query and goes straight to the pages. If she likes those, she’ll then read the query in more detail.

*in query instructions, they all asked that we indicate the number of pages in the complete manuscript rather than the word count

Hope you find some of this information useful!

The Peace of Wild Things (Wendell Berry)

With thanks to Kate DiCamillo who writes wonder-inspiring FB posts (as well as perfect books). I love a poem that I can understand:) Hope you all make time to get out and find peace in Nature every chance you get!

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 

– Wendell Berry

Only in Canada…

We had some proud Canadian moments while on our annual writing retreat in Port Joli last week. While on a working holiday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau paid a visit to Keji Seaside, part of Kejimkujik National Park, and we got to meet them (and take lots of pictures.)

the security cavalcade appears


Since the house we were renting is owned by Americans, there was nary a Canadian flag to be found. Being creative types, we concocted one from a Rubbermaid lid, a towel and a red paper napkin.






JT (as we like to call him) and Sophie chatted with the Parks Canada people and two women of the First Nations, then hiked down to the beach, possibly the most beautiful in all of Nova Scotia. A small group of us went along for the stroll (plus a few dozen security people and paparazzi).






On the beach, he approached us to shake hands and exchange pleasantries (he’s taller in real life than I’d thought and has a super-firm handshake), and we got to chat with Sophie for about 10 minutes while he talked to the Parks Canada people. She’s not only naturally beautiful, but very warm and friendly, including asking what we’d written when she found out we’re writers. I was sure to mention THE KING OF KEJI, wishing I had a copy on hand to give her kids.

Back at the house we were renting, we sat by the roadside to wave as the stream of black vehicles rolled past. We didn’t think much of it when a guy jogged past – we’d seen him on the beach and assumed he lived up the road. Then we looked again, and the PM was right behind him! “Nice to see you again ladies,” he said as he jogged past (in very colourful shorts), a female security person and two RCMP officers on bikes flanking him. I couldn’t help but point out our flag and tell him we’d made it (like he couldn’t tell…). Sadly, we couldn’t collect ourselves enough to get a picture. Only in Canada (and on an extremely rural NS road). Gave us lots to giggle about on the final evening of our retreat!

With Sophie Gregoire Trudeau