Category Archives: Children’s Literature

Interview with Duncan Weller

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Duncan Weller in his art

Duncan Weller is a writer of children’s books, adult fiction and poetry.  He is also a visual artist who shows his work regularly.  He lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and travels often to get ideas and images for his books.  He won two of Canada’s top awards (Governor General’s, Schwartz) for his picture book, The Boy from the Sun.  You can find him online at duncanweller.com. And check out his artwork at the Vinyl Listening Station at Waverley Library!

Shauna Kosoris: So what came first for you: art or writing?

Duncan Weller: Children are quite happy to draw until they learn to write. The interest in writing supersedes drawing because words more easily express ideas and feelings than pictures. I kept drawing as I learned to write to satisfy an itch that I can’t explain. According to my mother, my first spoken word as a one year old child occurred when looking at a sundown over the Ottawa River. I said, “Pretty,” and not another word for three months. In my twenties I thought of myself as a visual artist. I was getting paid for my art long before my writing, but today I don’t distinguish between the two as powerful twins.

In university, you were originally in Fine Arts. Why did you decide to switch to English?

I wanted to learn about the history and methods of creating children’s books and other forms of literature. And at the time the Fine Arts Departments across North America emphasized modern art, which has value for some, but wasn’t my thing. The philosophical underpinnings of modernism was too subjective for my taste and Fine Arts departments completely ignored the potential of popular culture.There’s nothing wrong with the traditional functions of art when those traditional functions are used progressively to dramatically enrich a democratic society. And humanism is at the core of English literature which applies not only to visual art, but to cultures the world over. That emphasis, of art with a mission beyond aesthetics, ideology and the self struck me as more meaningful and useful.

Do you normally write or illustrate your books first? A Starship by Duncan Weller

Stories are movies in my mind, complete with settings, plot and characters long before they are organized into a format using words and images. In order for others to enjoy my books, movies on paper, I have to make the computer keyboard come atonally alive with the laborious part of organizing words and sentences into a meaningful story enhancing and being enhanced by the illustrations. It’s a complicated balancing act, so I make notes, a good outline and/or a story board. So again, the writing and illustrations come together. Hundreds of stories were memorized by griots or bards who passed down stories orally for thousands of years. I’m not that clever, but I have entire plots and ideas for novels worked out in my head where not a sentence has been formed, not a drawing made.

What is your favourite artistic medium to work with and why?

Watercolour is amazingly versatile and perfectly suited for illustrating children’s books. With the right paper and techniques, watercolour effects can mimic the texture of skin, bark, cloth, steel, clouds, water, etc. in wonderful ways. Oils are my second favourite. A story I completed called Lara Wood, yet to be printed/published was done in oils and alkyds. I used a crackle medium to imitate tree bark. It looks awesome. Painting faces with oils is the best way to go if you want to take your time and blend skin tones nicely, along with creating setting effects, like skies and atmospheres. For the books I’ve used all sorts of different mediums and plan to use more in the future.

In your books, you’ve written both prose and poetry. Do you have a preference for one or the other?

Prose. It’s so much easier. And safer. Poetry is hard to write and dangerous. An incredible number of poets commit suicide. This is because poets often look deeply inwards, searching for bigger truths in the well, reaching beyond the rejuvenating properties of the drinking water and heading straight for the rocky bottom. Also, the subjective nature of poetry and lack of financial support makes the life of a poet pretty hard. At its best poetry can be the most perfect form of human expression so I look forward to writing poetry for future children’s books. I look deeply, but I don’t plumb the depths of my own being for the rocky bottom. I’m not all that interested in ultimate truths. I believe there is some kind of order to the universe, and I have a few ideas about how it works, but I wouldn’t dare to take myself too seriously. I leave these depths to scientists and philosophers and try to look at the outside world as an observer with a heart. And because I’m sensitive I like to keep the poetic impulses to a minimum. I’ll live longer this way.

That’s fair. I know you’ve made videos of some of your children’s books; are you still working with film at all?

Occasionally I work on painting backdrops that may one day be green screened into a short film I want to make. And I’d love to make animated shorts and short films, leading up to making a feature film one day, but films get made by teams and require lots of management and money. So I’m sure I’ll do a few more small projects, maybe one next year.

The Ugg and the DripAs both a writer and illustrator, you must get pulled in so many different directions artistically.  How do you decide on the project you will focus your attention on?

As a writer, painter, designer, publisher, promoter, and salesperson I have to balance too many jobs with paying for rent and food like anyone else. So I take on commissions occasionally to earn some quick money. My book projects are eventually more profitable, and more so if I can find an agent and a good publisher this year. It’s expensive to print a book on my own, and will put me in debt for a while, but will eventually earn me good money. Despite the complications, choosing a project or starting a new project comes from feeling inspired or just getting bored with painting in one medium. Sometimes it’s a sudden rush of emotions that are connected with a story I love that I just can’t wait to work on. It’s also about timing and situations, some just too hard to explain.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’ve got three visual art commissions that will pay the rent. In my spare time I’m working on three different novels with lots of interesting characters and situations: We Play You (for adults) is about an artist who has his work stolen by a gallery owner. He discovers that the gallery owner is connected to an investment company that steals art from artists the world over. Punch-Out and The Search for the Ugg are two middle readers for kids. The Ugg story will have over 80 small illustrations. I hope to have Tiger Dream, a new picture book, completed this year.

So what book or author inspired you to write?

As a teenager I read nearly a novel a day, everything from Farley Mowat to dozens of science fiction authors, along with all the required books in high school, enjoying the Russian authors, Shakespeare and George Orwell. In University I was a big fan of the English Romantic Poets, Roald Dahl and the political writings of many American journalists, especially Tom Wolfe who blew up the writing world decades ago with his dramatic writing style. These days I read Ian Rankin and lots of political articles. I am looking to get back into reading a greater variety of novels by joining a book group.

What books influenced your children’s books?A picture from Girl from the Moon

For children’s books I had a few favourites like Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, books featuring Mr. Ben Red Knight, Graham Oakley’s church mice, a couple books by Dr. Suess, Jack Ezra Keats (Goggles! was my favourite), and a few oddball books from Europe including the strange imagery in Eastern European books of folktales. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was my absolute favourite because the allegory applied to all sorts of strange adult behaviours. Most often I was disappointed as a child with children’s picture books. I felt the authors and illustrators had very little imagination, playing it safe, especially when compared to the amazing imagery in movies and television which also had a big influence on me. The Tom and Jane series that my mother got me as a young child made me feel ill. These books and many others were so bad I thought adults were robots who had no idea that children had feelings. I didn’t want to grow up to be an adult. For a while I thought adults were another kind of animal. At the age of nine a school librarian recommended we read the picture books with gold stickers on their covers. After I read over twenty books with gold stickers I told my classmates that books with gold stickers were the worst. It was about this time that I gave up on picture books and began reading comic books. I recall how disappointed I was when I made this as a conscious decision. At seventeen I thought I could make a ton of money writing good books for children because so many of them were terrible. In my early twenties I discovered Roald Dahl which later had a big influence.

Is there a book you think everyone should read?

For anyone interested in the visual arts I would recommend Learning to See by Alan Gowans. It’s out of print, but old copies can be ordered from Amazon and found in secondhand book shops in British Columbia. Gowans was an art historian who taught at the University of Victoria. He offered an alternate history of art that is amazingly coherent, practical and useful for artists if they ever feel confused about what art is for – about the amazing things that art can do for people.

And what are you currently reading?

I’m reading a book by Keli Goff called Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence. It’s one of many books I’m reading about race relations in order to improve the allegory for a story called Tiger Dream. I want to show children that it’s okay for us to eat, dress, talk and express ourselves differently because underneath the human dress (culture) we are all biologically the same. Our variety of cultures make the world an amazing place. I have to do a lot of reading for this story to better develop the allegory and ensure I’m representing other cultures accurately and positively. My research for Tiger Dream began with a trip to Ghana, which was made possible by a Chalmers’ Art Fellowship Award through the Ontario Arts Council.

Duncan Weller's books

Interview with Shane Peacock

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author picture of Shane PeacockShane Peacock was born in a place that doesn’t exist … the city of Port Arthur, Ontario. He grew up in Kapuskasing, Ontario, then earned a Bachelor’s degree (Honours) in English and History from Trent University, and a Master’s degree in Literature from the University of Toronto. Shane worked as a labourer for Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company, a wilderness bush sprayer for Ontario Hydro, and a box mover for a university bookstore. But ever since childhood, his mind was on other things: on extraordinary people and events, on personalities who made legends of their lives, on what motivated them, and what made others accept supporting roles. He set out to write about such individuals, some real, some invented, and others so eccentric that they seemed to be a combination of both. Because he writes about unusual subjects, his research methods have, at times, been out of the ordinary too. He has learned the arts of tight-rope walking, silent killing, trapeze flying, and sumo eating, all in the service of his art. Shane and his wife, journalist Sophie Kneisel, live with their three children on a small farm near Cobourg, Ontario, where he continues to search for and imagine larger-than life characters. In his spare time he enjoys playing hockey, reading, and walking the wire, pretending that he is the hero in each story.

Shauna Kosoris: You are most well-known for your Boy Sherlock Holmes series.  What inspired you to write about a young Holmes?

Shane Peacock: The Boy Sherlock Holmes series grew from an idea for a novel about racism and prejudice, and the need for the opposite of those two horrible things, justice. There was no one named Sherlock Holmes in the first draft of the first novel. It was a story about a brilliant half-Jewish boy in Victorian London, plagued by racist tormentors in school, who ends up being implicated in a murder and must find the villain. It wasn’t until someone suggested that my character could actually be Sherlock Holmes that I re-constructed the novel to make it about him. That allowed it to grow in both its appeal and complexity.

That most certainly would allow the story to grow in interesting ways.  More recently, you were involved in the Seven series; how did you get involved in that?

Eric Walters asked me to be involved in the Seven Series. We had been friends and colleagues for a while, and when he came up with his brilliant idea of a series written by seven different novelists, with novels all with the same starting point (a grandfather’s dying wish that his seven grandson’s attempt the seven amazing things on his bucket list), I thought it would be fascinating to be part of it, almost like a writing exercise.

That does sound like fun!  Did you choose to write Adam Murphy’s stories in the Seven Series/Sequels/Prequels?

I most definitely chose to write Adam Murphy’s stories in the Seven Series/Sequels/Prequels. Eric simply gave the other six authors the premise of the series and then we all created our characters and took them where we wanted them to go. One of the many strengths of this triple series is the uniqueness of each novelist’s creations in their respective novels.

Your new series, The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim, centers around a very sensitive character who suffers from night terrors.  Did you plan for your protagonist, Edgar Brim, to have this sleep disorder?

The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim was always meant to be a book about fear and, in particular, a story about a boy who suffers from a sort of anxiety disorder (though it certainly wasn’t called that in his day). I added the sleep disorder known as “sleep paralysis” or “the hag phenomenon” to his character, a terrifying ailment that most certainly still plagues people when they wake up suddenly and cannot move. Some people, over the centuries, report some sort of presence in the room with them, often a sort of hag or witch who is sitting on their chest, paralyzing them, squeezing the breath out of them. Edgar Brim struggles with this throughout my horror trilogy.

Both your Boy Sherlock Holmes series and your new series about Edgar Brim are set in the Victorian era.  Why does the Victorian era/Gothic period appeal to you so much?

I think the Victorian period appeals to me so much because it occurred after photography had been invented but before moving film, so we can see images of people and places and buildings and machinery from that time, but they sit or stand there, ghostly and immovable. I am fascinated by the idea of making it move in my novels, of animating that fascinating historical period, especially in London. I am also a huge Charles Dickens fan … that will do it to you!

In the middle of working on all of these series, you’ve also written a children’s picture book.  Why did you decide to write a picture book about Vincent van Gogh?

As is often the case with artists of all genres, I didn’t choose to write a picture book about Vincent van Gogh as much as it chose me. I had written a short story about him long ago that Karen Li, a brilliant editor at Owlkids Books, learned about and asked if I might consider turning into a picture book. I am an admirer of Van Gogh, of his genius, his individuality and courage, and an enemy of bullying, so I put those two things together in “The Artist and Me” and told what turned out to be a unique picture book that has, thankfully, met with great critical acclaim.

All of your books to date have been aimed at younger audiences, both young adult and children.  Why do you like writing for these younger age groups?

Actually, my first book, The Great Farini, was for adults, all my plays, documentaries, journalism and even a novel I am working on now, are for adults.

Whoops, that’s my mistake.

But I do enjoy writing for the younger audiences. It is definitely fun to be anywhere from six to eighteen again. And it is also intriguing to tell stories that are challenging, as all YA literature is if you try to get it right – to stay on plot, make your work exciting, AND make it say something and be structurally and stylistically interesting.

It is often commented that my books are like adult novels for kids.

So what are you working on now?

I am writing the second novel in the Edgar Brim trilogy, entitled Monster, as well as a new picture book, and the adult novel. I also have an idea for a Teen romance (a very different sort of one) and am developing a strange new YA series.

Wow, you’re very busy – good luck with everything!  Finally, let’s talk a bit about reading.  What book or author inspired you to write?

I think the aforementioned Charles Dickens may have been the greatest influence on me. My father actually read us Oliver Twist and other Dickens works when we were pretty young and I was absolutely enchanted by the characters and the worlds I encountered. I am also a big fan of The Little Prince, which is prominent in each of my novels in the Seven Series, Sequels and Prequels.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

Well, everyone should read Shakespeare. I know he is difficult for young people, but he is undoubtedly the greatest writer who ever lived and his stories are absolutely alive. They are magical. But Dickens is close behind.

And what are you currently reading?

I have been reading a lot of classic Horror stories for The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim, lots of Frankenstein, Dracula, Poe, and I recently read an amazing novel called Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which is 1,100 pages long and very complicated but also rewarding. At this moment, I’m part way into Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The Fault in Our Stars, which I’ve somehow avoided for a while, is up next.

cover picture of Edgar Brim

The Books of Mo Willems

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pigeonbusElephant and Piggie. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. Knuffle Bunny. These perennial story-time favourites were all created by one author, the endlessly original Mo Willems. In addition to his series titles, Willems also writes popular standalone books. Most child readers (and those who read to children) will be familiar with Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs and Tyrone the Terrible. This year, he has brought one series to a close and opened a new chapter.

 

After twenty-five stories, two gold medals from the Theodor S Geisel committee and five Geisel Honors, Willems has ended the adventures of Elephant and Piggie with The Thank You Book. These boisterous friends have had many adventures; including There is a Bird on Your Head! and We are in a Book! Told through humorous dialogue and simple, sparse illustrations, these books are a great pick for early readers and new installments will be missed.

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However, rather than saying a final farewell to these popular characters, Willems is using themmo-willems as a vehicle to bring attention to other exciting and worthwhile children’s authors in a new series called Elephant and Piggie Like Reading! In these books, Elephant and Piggie act as a framing device, introducing the story to readers and commenting on it in the final pages while another author writes and illustrates the central story itself.

 

I fully recommend checking out both of these new books. The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat uses a goofy cast of characters to introduce sharing and fractions to readers in a scenario all kids will recognize: four friends, but only three cookies. We Are Growing! by Laurie Keller explores individuality and self confidence amongst a group of silly grasses. Both books contain the humour and endearing characters found in Mo Willems’ own work and should satisfy any disappointed Elephant and Piggie super-fans.

 

 

Interview with Jean E. Pendziwol

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Author Picture of Jean E. PendziwolJean E. Pendziwol is the award-winning author of eight published children’s books.  Her debut adult novel, The Light Keeper’s Daughters, will be published in 2017 by HarperCollins; her latest children’s book, Me and You and the Red Canoe, will also be published in 2017 by Groundwood Books. You can find her online at http://www.jeanependziwol.com/.

Shauna Kosoris: Your writing career began with the publication of the picture book No Dragons for Tea: Fire Safety for Kids (and Dragons), which was published in 1999.  What inspired you to write this book?

Jean E. Pendziwol: My writing career actually began a few years before that. Prior to having kids, and continuing on a casual basis after they were born, I worked as a freelance writer, mostly for trade publications. I researched, wrote, photographed and did editorial coordination. Having young children re-exposed me to children’s books, and in particular, picture books. I love the format – the partnering of images and text, the challenge of working within a limited number of words, and, especially at that time, the ability to hold a story completely in my head before I even put pen to paper.  No Dragons for Tea was inspired by my daughter.  At that time, she was extremely afraid of fires, and more so, by fire alarms. I was concerned that she didn’t have the necessary tools to respond in an emergency situation and searched out resources. What I found were a number of books about fire safety that were all either didactic or frightening. With the help of our local fire prevention officer, Brian Berringer, I came up with the idea for the book. I was thrilled when Kids Can Press wanted to publish it! I was fortunate in that it was timely, relevant, accessible and engaging and it carried an important message.

I love that it spawned a whole series of engaging safety stories for children, too!  Right now you’ve published eight picture books, with another one tentatively scheduled for release next year.  What is the appeal of writing for children?

I love the challenge of writing picture books. There is a misconception that because the stories are short and for children that writing them is a simple task. It’s actually one of the hardest genres to get published in, which I fortunately didn’t know at the time I headed down that path. Several of my picture books are poems, and while written for children, have a universal appeal. Once Upon a Northern Night in particular has touched many people.  I love that my stories speak to people in an intimate way. And because I value and respect children, I want to create something for them that is valuable and respectful.

What’s the hardest thing for you when writing a picture book?

There are so many audiences to keep in mind. The audience for the story is a child, but it also needs to speak to the adult who will be making the decision to buy or borrow the book. Picture books are most often read out loud, and read many times over, and as a writer, these are things I need to consider.

Your debut adult novel, The Light Keeper’s Daughters, is due out next summer.  What made you switch your focus from writing children’s books?

I haven’t. I love and will always love writing for children; this is just another branch of the same writing tree. When I first started working on The Light Keeper’s Daughters, I intended for it to be for middle grade or young adult readers.  But as the characters began to take shape on the page and the themes and plot evolved, it settled into a story more suited to an adult audience. I was also at a point in my life where I was able to devote time to a more involved, lengthy writing process necessary for a novel-length story.

Has it been hard switching from writing for children to writing for adults?

For me, writing is always a learning process. Skills applicable to children’s writing are also important for adult writing; keeping the audience in mind; respecting the reader; ensuring that the voice remains consistent; and keeping the pace appropriate. I think my tendency to be a concise writer has served me well in my work for children and that has carried over to my writing for adults as well.

What can you tell me about your new novel?

The Light Keeper’s Daughters features two fascinating women, Elizabeth, who is elderly, blind and living in a senior’s home, and Morgan, a teenager completing community service hours for spray-painting graffiti. They are drawn together after the discovery of journals penned by Elizabeth’s father when he served at Porphyry Island as lighthouse keeper nearly sixty years ago. As they decipher the musty words, they realize they are connected through Elizabeth’s enigmatic twin sister, Emily, their lives shaped by the harsh Lake Superior environment and the secrets kept by a family for a lifetime.

I look forward to reading it next year!  So what are you working on now?

I’ve got a few projects on the go, some for children and some for adults… This, that and another thing. 🙂

Fair enough.  What book or author inspired you to write?

I grew up sailing on Lake Superior, so had plenty of time for reading. Interestingly, I never envisioned myself being a novelist, although I always loved to write. Some of my favorite books included the Mary Stewart series about Merlin and King Arthur (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills), Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M Auel), Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, Ken Follet. As a young child, I read Enid Blyton, and had A.A. Milne read to me.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

I think that’s a difficult question – readers are so diverse, which is wonderful. Not everyone likes the same kind of book. Some of my favorites (other than the ones noted above) include To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield), Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie, Ina Rilke), All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr), Skellig (David Almond) and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls. Oh, and Because of Winn Dixie (Kate DiCamillo) – pure genius in my opinion.

And what are you currently reading?

I just finished The Illegal (Lawrence Hill), I’m reading Fifteen Dogs (Andre Alexis), and have Amy Jones’ We’re All in This Together on the list.  I’m also re-reading some of my favorite middle grade books, looking at them from the perspective of a writer, including The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis), Coraline (Neil Gaiman), Little House in the Big Woods (Laura Ingalls), and Holes (Louis Sachar). And, of course, Because of Winn Dixie.

Cover Picture of Once Upon a Northern Night

Shakespeare as Graphic Novels

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Classics Illustrated MacbethShakespeare continues to appear in new and usual ways and one of the newest  formats is the appearance of traditional and manga style graphic novels, though the plays have appeared in illustrated editions for hundreds of years. Copies of the plays were illustrated in both adult and children’s editions and proved particularly popular with the Victorian middle class. There was another surge of popularity during the depression and following the Second World War. Classics illustrated which operated between 1941 to 1971 in it’s incarnation did brisk business selling over 200 million copies.

manga shakespeareAs illustrated novels again rise in popularity, its not surprising that Shakespeare has found a whole new audience. graphic shakespeareShakespeare Manga publishes the plays in a manga format and from it’s own advertising claims the works will appeal to  “manga fans and kids that find Shakespeare intimidating”.  A number of companies offer graphic novels in English, including No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels and Shakespeare Graphics but there is also a large market for Shakespeare graphic novels in none English speaking editions, especially in Japan.

midsummer nights dream

Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier (August, September 1914) by Barroux, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone

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lineoffire2This book’s origins are quite remarkable. It began when a French artist named Barroux noticed some garbage being thrown out on a Paris street and stopped because he saw some old magazines and had been looking for some to cut up for a project. Among the debris he also found a medal and an old diary. It turned out to be over 100 years old and had belonged to a French man who had been conscripted into World War 1. The name was too faded to read anymore, but the words were quite amazing and they inspired the artist to create the images which would illustrate the unknown soldier’s words.

The result was a graphic novel unlike most novels or true-life accounts of war. Because the diarist was writing for himself the story is told in a very matter-of-fact and unedited manner. The reader views the story just as it unfolds for the teller, and it is not a grand drama, but rather, the personal view of an infantry soldier recounting what he sees, hears and feels as he moves through the early days of the war.

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It begins when France declares war and continues until early September in 1914. Then, it abruptly stops. By that time, the reader is captivated and wants to know what happens next, but it must remain a mystery because that is all there is to the diary. Instead, he includes the lyrics of some of the songs of the day and we are left to speculate what became of the person we have gotten to know.

In his diary, he writes about the initial enthusiasm of his fellow servicemen, of long treks and journeys, his aching feet, some of the people he befriends, life in the trenches and also in the hospital where he is taken at one point. He writes of the countryside, his inner thoughts and seeing courage in battle.

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Barroux illustrates every page of the diary using acrylic paint and a thick black grease pencil that he obtained from his butcher. He had to spray the pages to keep the grease lines from smudging and the result is a yellowish patina which suits the 100 year old story well. The drawings are semi-realistic with a slight cartoonish element which preserves a bit of the mystery of the diary-writer’s identity. He is “any-man” fighting for his country and wondering what will happen next.   Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse and many other fine books, wrote the introduction for Line of Fire and stated: “We need the voice of a witness to tell the unadulterated truth. We have it in this remarkable book.” I couldn’t agree more and recommend this unique book to anyone aged 12 and older.

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Angela Meady is Head of Children’s & Youth Services for the Thunder Bay Public Library.

Three Anonymous Limericks

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There was a young woman named Kite,
Whose speed was much faster than light,
She set out one day,
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.

Poems, what a silly thing.
They’re meaningless and boring,
Pointless and rhyme.
Who wastes their time,
Thinking up ludicrous writing.

There once was a grumpy dog,
Who ate all the world’s frogs.
He put the planet on riot,
And France on diet,
Then began to rid the hogs
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