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

Shoes on the Mat

I don’t know about you, but I have a thing about shoes. I suppose I collect them, really. My go-to footwear usually consists of slippers, sneakers, flip flops, or rubber boots, depending on the season. Since most of my clothes shopping happens at used clothing stores (a teenage habit I’ve kept for life), it doesn’t cost me a lot to have a closet full of footwear, and I almost always have the pair I need, whatever the occasion. I like red leather, so I have three or four pairs of red shoes. (I also scored a red leather Ikea chair and footstool on Kijiji the other day for $60, but that’s another story).

A few years ago, when my nest was emptying, among other things, I started thinking about shoes. I’ve always loved perfect little baby/toddler shoes. In particular, I longed for the days when I’d pass through the front hall on my way to the bathroom, always stopping to check for my son’s shoes on the mat; I needed to know that he was safely in for the night. Toddling, running, skipping, hopping, pirouetting, stumbling and prancing; so many kids shoes have passed through the house over the years. I still miss them (the shoes and the kids who, in the blink of an eye, turned into young adults).

And so, I wrote an ode to those shoes on the mat. It’s unlikely to ever find a publishing home, but I thought I’d share a few verses here.

Baby booting from chair to stool to floor;

Those sneakers!

teetering , toddling, wobbling.

Bumps and boo-boos, sweet monkey grins.

Tiny white work boots shimmer like moon snails.

Safe on the mat; day is done.

Sleep well, my baby son.

Soaring, roaring, tree-climbing, velcro-flying superhero;

misty moonbeams dance like silver capes waving;

upside down heap of sneakers, asleep, waiting…

Safe on the mat; day is done.

Sleep well, my big-boy son.


Dribbling, leaping, slam-dunking, scoring;

B-ball shoes bending, bounding, crowd roaring;

shooting star wishes, dream-come-true swishes.

Side-by-side, standing tall;  night defencemen  guard the hall.

Safe on the mat; day is done.

Sleep well, my growing-up son.

Shannon, age 8 – boots a Frenchy’s find.

I’m a tad jealous of my friends who are already grandparents. Maybe one day, I’ll have baby boots sleeping on my mat again… I can always dream, can’t I?

Sneaker-wearing tourists – Woodleigh Replicas, PEI, circa 1995

A Bench for Remembering

Before my dad died, it was important to him to have his (and Mum’s) headstone in place, designed to their specifications. Fortunately, he had the time to make those arrangements, and I think it made his leaving a little easier for him.

from the Village Pier, St. Simons Island, GA

Lately, as I’ve travelled about, I’ve been noticing memorial benches. I first saw them in a Toronto park, part of a commemorative program administered by the City of Toronto Parks Department. You can purchase a hardwood tree for $738, or a bench with a personalized plaque for $2530. I’ve seen these benches while biking the rails-to-trails system here in Nova Scotia, and more recently at the Village Pier Park on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia.


There are dozens of these wooden benches scattered around the grounds, in the shade of live oaks or this 100 year-old cedar tree, or in the glorious sunshine, overlooking the ocean out front of the library building. Lots of weddings, and also funerals, are held on this lawn, or in the atrium adjacent to the library. I read most of the plaques, and had to take pictures of some of my favourites. To me, this is a perfect way to honour someone’s life, while providing a beautiful resting place to sit and remember that person (if it’s someone you knew, or just sit and reflect if not). Here are some of the most poignant epitaphs:




Don’t you just love the idea of “Dayclean” – the time before dawn when the world is made fresh again?


If you ever get a chance to sit on one of these benches, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of these guys, keeping watch over the pier. Have you encountered any interesting memorials in your travels?

Pelicans on St. Simons Pier







Feeding Your Soul

While I’m feeding my soul and enjoying the sunshine and endless Vitamin D here on beautiful Saint Simons Island, Georgia, I’ve been thinking a bit about the pile of manuscripts I’ve accumulated over the past 15 or so years. Of course, it’s not really a pile, but rather folders full of dozens and dozens of manuscripts and ideas. When you write every day, that pile is bound to grow, and grow… At this point, I’ve come to accept that there are a few, okay maybe more than a few, in that pile, even novels, that will never be published, but yet I keep writing. I can’t not write. It seems like I have new ideas every day; part of the challenge is definitely sticking with an idea, as Rick Riordan has said:

For some reason this year, I’ve also started drawing. I can’t remember when I’ve had this much fun with a pencil and piece of paper, but it was probably back in elementary school. I’ve created so many picture book characters from words, and trying to bring them to life with my pencil is a very cool (and often frustrating) experience. I got to spend some time in Blick’s, a huge art store in Savannah a few days ago – so much to see, and none of it is cheap! Savannah has a big art college; can’t imagine how students afford to acquire materials. It’s doubtful I’ll ever see my “art” in a book, but enjoying the process is what it’s all about, right?

Whenever I travel, I always try to visit the local library. Here on Saint Simons, you can get a six-month library card for $12 – what a bargain! Sadly, I’m only here for one month, but I’m spending hours going through picture books, trying to figure out the appeal of certain illustrators’ work. It seems to me it’s really about having an original style – many of the most popular illustrators aren’t producing “fine art,” but it’s art that appeals to both kids and adults, art that enhances the story being told through creating people who seem real and organic to the story.

Hope spring has arrived in your corner, and that it brought a new burst of creative energy your way, too; hopefully something beautiful and satisfying to feed your soul. A quick middle-grade novel recommendation – NIGHTINGALE’S NEST (Nikki Loftin) – magical, perfectly imagined and written from its cover to its last words. And here’s some food for thought from Steve Jobs:

steve jobs quotes