Chatting with “Margaret” readers

 

I can’t say enough how much of a pleasure it was getting to meet so many readers, young and old, around the province this past month. Seeing the Margaret-inspired artwork some of you made, getting such insightful questions and comments, opening the mail to find a stack of reader letters… it’s been just amazing for Brit and me. And one form of reader interaction that’s been especially fun — which we just tried for the first time! — is video-chatting with book clubs.

We first heard about Toronto’s Bookworm Bookclub when two of their members, sisters Thea and Annika, made a fantastic movie trailer for the Silver Birch Award voting, costarring their mom Kim (aka Bookwormmom). They did such a good job… future filmmakers in the making, perhaps?

 

So when we got to meet this club at the Toronto “Forest of Reading” event, we jumped at the chance to virtually “attend” one of their meetings.

Bookwormmom went all out, as she writes on her website!

I set the table in the manner that Ms. Switch would have entertained her real guests – lovely flowers, pretty cakes and tea (a.k.a. pink lemonade)…

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We had a good discussion about how we stand up to bullies, even when the bully is an adult.  It was encouraging to know that all the girls had someone they felt they could turn to if they needed help (usually a teacher or parent).  After that, we played a game where we stayed silent with our eyes closed for 2 minutes and listened for as many sounds as possible.  It’s amazing how long it takes the ear to settle down and begin to hear the soft sounds of birds chirping or dogs barking far away.  By 90 seconds we were wavering between trying to remember all the sounds we were hearing and trying not to giggle because we felt kind of silly sitting all together with our eyes closed.  I have to admit, I peeked a few times to check that the girls weren’t all sitting there staring at me! :) Our next activity included a lot of magazines and scissors.  In the book, the moths feed on nimblers; the stuff dreams are made of.  The girls cut out pictures depicting dream-like and nightmarish images to them.  They chatted about the kinds of dreams they have and what they might mean.  I didn’t know you could have a nightmare about a spoon, but apparently it happens!  I would have loved to have done a dream analysis activity with them, but alas we barely had enough time to finish cutting out the pictures for pasting onto poster board before our author call… Each girl had a question that we had come up with earlier in the meeting.  Since all of us were siblings, we were very curious to hear what it was like to work so closely with a sister… Margaret and the Moth Tree was one of our Bookclub’s favourite books, both because of the story it told and the authors who told it.  It’s one of those sweet little tales you fondly recall on a warm summer night watching moths flit around the porch light at the cottage.  And the message of hidden strength no matter your size is one I hope the girls will carry with them always.

bookclub

What fun — it was so great to chat with you guys, and we both hung up feeling so energized and inspired.

Can’t wait to “meet” another book club, the Share-A-Story club in Milton, next month!

It all begins… next week!

 

When I was growing up, I listened over and over to an audiobook version of Charlotte’s Web read by the author, E.B. White. At the beginning of the tape, E.B. White says of his story: “I wrote it for children, and to amuse myself.” I always loved the sound of his voice saying those words, and they’ve come back to me often over the years. Now having been through the process of writing and publishing a kids’ book myself, I’m still inclined to agree with E.B. — writing for children is equal parts self-amusement (sometimes self-help!), and the desire to tell a story that a child might get something from.

Well, Brit and I definitely amused ourselves while writing Margaret and the Moth Tree. But so far, the writing for living, breathing children part has been a bit theoretical. So far, we haven’t got to meet and talk with that many child readers face to face…

This is about to change!!

After counting down the months, we’re off on a journey around Ontario for the Silver Birch Awards! Thanks to the wonderful Ontario Library Association who administer the Silver Birch and the rest of the Forest of Reading awards, Brit and I will be travelling by ground and by air with a group of fellow nominees. In each location, we’ll get to witness the announcement of the favourite children’s book of the year in each age category, as chosen by young voters! We’ll be going from Parry Sound (May 6) to North Bay (May 7-8) to Thunder Bay (May 10) to Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre (May 16), with a school visit in Richmond Hill squeezed in on our off-time. Then I’ll be going sisterless to the final destination, Durham Region, on the 17th.

I absolutely can’t wait, though my nerves are getting a wee bit jumpy… What does it feel like to be surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of book-loving children, cheering at the top of their lungs about how much they love to read? We’re about to find out.

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Creative Communities, and Thoughts about Introverts

 

When I moved to Toronto three years ago with all my worldly goods and a dream of being a children’s writer/editor, I had a couple strange months before starting Publishing School. I knew very few people, had very little furniture, and was jittery about things like subway transfers. (There was also a garbage strike on, so the city was abnormally stinky!) But that summer, I realized that I happened to live just down the street from the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, also known as CANSCAIP, who’ve been around for the past thirty-five years and who get together once a month above the library.

I’ve been to meetings semi-regularly ever since (am trying especially hard not to miss them now that I’ve become a freelancer, aka a hermit), and last night’s led by the illustrator Debbie Ohi was a wonderfully fun and thought-provoking one.

Debbie took us through her story of becoming a children’s book illustrator, balancing creative work with “real world” work, continuing to put herself out there despite the rejections, and — what was very interesting to me — being an introvert. You wouldn’t think Debbie was introverted to meet her, she’s so easygoing, personable and enthusiastic. I wouldn’t immediately think it about myself, either; I grew up in the performing arts and loved them, and continue to love to sing and dance and be a general ham. But she is one, and I am one, and I suspect a lot of writers and artists and people who “craft” things are.

Debbie also talked about how, these days, it is very, very rare to get your creative work plucked from obscurity, no matter how vividly you might daydream about it…

one of Debbie’s comics — love this!

Especially when you’re trying to get into writing or illustrating for young people, you can’t disappear into your introverted world, come out clutching your manuscript and say, “Done! Publish me, please!” Educating yourself about the children’s book community and getting to know people there is important, and it’s how new work tends to get “discovered.”

Then, if you’re lucky enough to find your name on the cover of a book, engaging with the reading community can help your book grow. There are just so many books out there, and kids’ book publishers never have enough marketing dollars nowadays. Word-of-mouth begins with you, the creator.

These are things that might not come naturally to people who like to spend a lot of time by themselves, making stuff up. But Debbie just works through it, drawing comics about her experiences as she goes along. And she’s always generous with her advice for those who feel nervous or embarrassed or shy. To paraphrase,

Be brave — introduce yourself! If they like children’s books, chances are they’re very nice. If they’re fellow writers/illustrators, chances are they too are nervous and embarrassed and shy.

Know how to describe your own work.

Have realistic expectations (he he).

Keep trying.

And from there, you never know.

 

Congrats, Debbie, on the launch of your and Michael Ian Black’s first children’s book, I’m Bored (Simon & Schuster)!

 

The Story Behind the Story

“HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE THE BOOK?”

Here, more or less, is how it happened.

 
 
 May, 2009 – One Victoria Day long weekend, three sisters went on a road trip in New Brunswick. On a stormy drive somewhere between Fredericton and Grand Manan Island, two of them decided to try writing a children’s story together (and the third one was nice enough to tolerate them).
 
… TYPITY TYPE TYPE …
 
January 14, ’11 – After showing our manuscript to a couple of trusted readers, we submitted it to Kids Can Press. Rather like sending your kid off to kindergarden, not knowing whether she will make any friends.
 
May 16 ’11 – Probably the most exciting email of our respective lives… WE’VE BEEN ACCEPTED BY KIDS CAN PRESS!
 
… TYPITY TYPE TYPE, this time with a lovely and wonderful creature called a substantive editor (ours was the lovely and wonderful Sheila Barry) …
 
August 23, ’11 – In the midst of final substantive edits, we got our first peek at the cover art.
 
September 12, ’11 – After a lot of hard work with Sheila, Margaret was deemed substantial enough. Then she was sent off to another, more elusive editor: the copyeditor.
 
September 29, ’11 – Our last week with our book in manuscript form. Equal parts braindead and fluttery-hearted… with a pinch of grumpiness to see our Canadian spellings and Oxford commas go. (Boo, Noah Webster.)
 
October 21, ’11 – The proof is in the “proofs”… today the computer pages looked like book pages! (And we got to keep some of our favourite commas after all. Yippee!)
 
February 2, ’12 – Arrived home to find a book-shaped package on my desk. Felt like Jo March at the end of Little Women.
 
March 27, ’12 – The day that Margaret found her way onto a shelf in my local bookstore in Toronto…
 
Lately – I still go and check on her there sometimes, to make sure she’s doing all right.
 

Our very first fan mail

 

In my experience, being a brand new, first-time author can feel like speaking into a void, wondering whether anyone beyond your family and your publisher are listening, and if they are, whether they like you at all or are busily yawning/rolling their eyes at you. In other words, publishing is like a second teenage-hood.

The fact that writers are alone and mired in their own thoughts so much of the time doesn’t help matters. Doubts (and irrational tears, if you’re me) can spring up at the drop of a hat. Actual conversation: “That reviewer didn’t like us?! Oh no! Our publisher must have been wrong!” *sobs…*

But as with my first teenage experience, the great thing about it is finding people who “get” you and what it is you’re trying to say. Nothing is more satisfying, comforting and affirming than words of encouragement from somebody who isn’t obliged to love you because they’re your mom… especially if that somebody is a child who read your book!!!

A gigantic thank-you to Kennedy and her friend Menaka in Thornhill, Ontario, for sending Brit and me our first-ever letter from a fan.

 

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’” 
― C.S. Lewis

 

P.S.

HAPPY CANADA DAY!

A “new fairy tale”

 

A review of Margaret and the Moth Tree by Suite 101’s Michael Jung called our book a “new fairy tale”!

For many kids, reading fairy tales conjures up images of diving into a fantastic world full of mind-bending spells, mythical creatures, and flying broomsticks. Sometimes though, the most memorable fairy tales come from quiet stories that manage to find something truly remarkable in an apparently ordinary world – or tales that allow readers to empathize with the most ridiculous of characters and circumstances, creating an experience that lingers long after the story is over. Funny, ironic, and often bittersweet, Margaret and the Moth Tree will strike a chord with anyone who’s felt lonely and dreamed of finding a hidden world only for them. Fairy tale lovers will be glad to find the story follows in the tradition of authors like Roald Dahl and Lemony Snickett with its larger-than-life villain, foolish grownups, heroic-but-crafty children, and humorously pedantic narrator. Yet the story is more than just a stock fantasy… [T]he story’s theme of looking (or listening) below the surface to find the real truth… will likely be the most memorable aspects of this new fairy tale. ~ “Offbeat modern fairy tales for young readers

I was so thrilled to hear Margaret called a fairy tale, because I happen to be a lifelong devourer of fairy tales in all forms and am hungrily eating up all the new adaptations that have burst onto the big screen lately. I’ve given a lot of thought recently to why this is—why it is that I and so many other people continue to be enthralled by fairy tales, and why writers still want to explore the genre with new interpretations…

 

~ A Few Thoughts on Fairy Tales from Me and my Friends, Some Long-Dead ~

 

A hundred years ago, the Scottish fairy tale collector Andrew Lang talked about how the same kinds of stories show up across cultures, and how they’ve always done so for as long as people can remember. The trappings are different, but the tropes are the same:

The stories in the Fairy Books have generally been such as old women in country places tell to their grandchildren. Nobody knows how old they are, or who told them first. The children of Ham, Shem and Japhet may have listened to them in the Ark, on wet days. Hector’s little boy may have heard them in Troy Town, for it is certain that Homer knew them, and that some of them were written down in Egypt about the time of Moses. People in different countries tell them differently, but they are always the same stories, really, whether among little Zulus, at the Cape, or little Eskimo, near the North Pole. The changes are only in matters of manners and customs; such as wearing clothes or not, meeting lions who talk in the warm countries, or talking bears in the cold countries. There are plenty of kings and queens in the fairy tales, just because long ago there were plenty of kings in the country. A gentleman who would be a squire now was a kind of king in Scotland in very old times, and the same in other places. These old stories, never forgotten, were taken down in writing in different ages, but mostly in this century, in all sorts of languages. These ancient stories are the contents of the Fairy books. 

Nobody can write a new fairy tale; you can only mix up and dress up the old, old stories, and put the characters into new dresses… 

So fairy tales are old and ever-changing, they’re rooted in oral tradition, and they transcend countries and time periods. But what qualifies as one?

I’ve been mulling over the difference between fairy tale and fantasy lately, and why people often conflate the two. Gypsy Thornton at Once Upon a Blog hits one key difference on the head:

Fairy tales aren’t magical stories full of unicorns and pixie dust. That’s fantasy. Fairy tales are everyday stories with an element of wonder. The focus is different and it’s that wonder factor amid the mundane that makes all the difference.

I think that’s just it: the idea that an everyday situation could take a turn for the fantastical. That in a mundane world, there could be a bit of wonder that comes along and changes your circumstances. Which leads to that element of wishing and wish fulfillment that fairy tales often have…

When writing about who fairy tales were originally for, Charles Dickens spoke of the “vast hosts of men and 
women who have done their long day’s work,
 and laid their grey heads down to rest.” It’s a storytelling genre that came from rural, working people and from working women in particular, hence the presence of so many spinning wheels, thimbles and the like. Telling and retelling fairy tales over chores and around firesides offered reassurance and escapism—and a chance to relish the thought of bad people meeting nasty ends, of course. But Dickens wasn’t as interested in the bloodthirsty nastiness of the old fairy tales as he was in their saving power. To him, fairy literature was a “precious old escape” and a “powerful aid”:

In an utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that Fairy
tales should be respected… a nation without fancy,
 without some romance, never did, never
 can, never will, hold a great place under the 
sun. [Fairy tales] helped to keep us, in some sense, ever young, by preserving
 through our worldly ways one slender 
track not overgrown with weeds, where we may walk with children, sharing their delights.

So in Dickens’ view, fairy tales deal with something that children have access to: a faith in goodness and happy endings. And as adults rereading them, we have access to that hope again.

“I never really liked stories about children doing what children do—quarreling and cooking and camping. I like magic, the unreal, the more than real.”

~A. S. Byatt’s introduction to The Grimm Reader

Changing Hats

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

At one point I would have said “an Egyptologist,” but after ruling out that possibility along with teacher, lawyer and journalist, the answer has always been “a writer.”

Trying to make a living off of words is a many-hatted profession, like so many jobs in the arts are. As far as I’m aware there isn’t a magic wish-granting genie to help you pay your bills as you write stories, so very few writers today just write. They teach, they lecture, they edit, they review, they work entirely different jobs, taking off one hat to put on another in an ongoing juggling act.

After an extremely busy summer and fall getting Margaret and the Moth Tree ready for publication alongside my co-author/sibling Brit and editor/idol Sheila, I’ve decided to leave my full-time job behind to become a freelancer! As I put on this new and slightly daunting hat, I’m thinking back to The Hats I Have Known. Ahem.

Here’s to you,

Encyclopedia Writer Hat (a rather thrilling hat)

Teaching Assistant Hat (a nervous, stuttering hat)

Rejection Letter-Writing Hat (a tricky hat)

Proposal Writer Hat (a hat to do with asking people for money, not marriage)

Publishing Assistant Hat (a fortuitous hat)

Copywriter (which is not at all the same thing as Copyrighter) Hat

Ghostwriter Hat (a hat sharing a name with a supercool 90s kids’ show)

 

Farewell, Hats of Yore. I hope to put some of you on again in a freelance capacity… just not 40+ hours per week of you!

 

Edward Monkton says it best.