Category Archives: Books

Write Don’t Whine!

“Do you believe our world will always have wars? Put up your hand if you believe that.”  

 About half the audience raised their hands. Canadian children’s author Deborah Ellis surveyed the two hundred writers and illustrators of children’s books gathered in front of her and said bluntly, “Those of you who have your hands raised have no business writing books for children. If you believe we can’t end war in our world you should not  be creating books for children. And you also shouldn’t be teachers.”

I was attending a conference for children’s writers and illustrators in Toronto on the Remembrance Day weekend and Deborah Ellis was delivering the final keynote address. She certainly didn’t pull any punches. She told us what we believe in our hearts will come through in our writing and our writing needs to reflect a hope that our world can be a better place; that the sins of the past do not have to be the sins of the future.  

Deborah told us the books of our childhood are the ones we read over and over and over again and those childhood books are the ones our children will remember long into the future. We need to make sure those books encourage kids to be kind, to care for our planet, to act in a peaceful way, to be better people. 

Deborah Ellis

Deborah also had little sympathy for how incredibly difficult it is to get a children’s book published these days. Getting published shouldn’t be our motivation for writing. Deborah referred to a scene from the movie Julia where two authors Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman are in conversation about writing and Lillian is complaining about the difficulty of finishing a manuscript.  Hammett tells her to stop whining.  If she wants to quit writing she should quit but if she doesn’t want to quit she should just write.  

Deborah said we should be writing because we need to and want to. If we truly want to write we should just write, with or without affirmation.  “Don’t be an ass about it!”  she chastized us. She reminded us that not everyone has an opportunity or the ability to write.  We do.  So we should be grateful and not whine. 

Deborah has spent her career writing books about children in the most difficult of circumstances.  Books like……….The Cat At the Wall- about a Palestinian boy living in a small house on the West Bank in Israeli occupied territory, The Breadwinner about a young girl who impersonates a boy to help her family survive in war torn Afghanistan, No Ordinary Day about an orphan on the streets of Jharia India and No Safe Place about an illegal immigrant teenager from Baghdad in a refugee community in Calais France. Deborah has donated over a million dollars in royalities from her books to organizations that help children in crisis around the world. 

Deborah practices what she preaches so it is pretty hard to criticize her.  She gave us a ‘kick in the butt’  at the end of the conference. I for one needed it and appreciated it and it made me leave the conference even more determined to keep on writing !

Other posts about the CANSCAIP conference in Toronto………

What’s the Answer?

Relentless Persistence?

Writers All Around

A Top Ten List From a Top Notch Writer


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Coop the Great- A Book That’s Not Just For Dog Lovers

I was once bit on the nose by a dachshund and needed several stitches. My nose ballooned up to about triple its size.  I was a teenager at the time and was soooooooo embarrassed because my Mom made me go to school despite the fact that thanks to a dachshund I looked like a clown. That’s important for you to know before I offer my review of Larry Verstraete’s new middle grade novel Coop the Great.  The main character is……… you guessed it……… a dachshund.  You have to understand that I am not really a dog person and in particular not a dachshund lover.  

So the fact I enjoyed Larry‘s book despite my lack of affinity for canines should be an indication of just how good a story it is.  The novel taught me some very interesting things about dogs and I was amazed at how Larry was able to consistently let us see the world from a dog’s perspective. 

Coop is an aging pet who struggles with health issues and some past problems with the families who have offered him a home. In that regard he is not unlike his owner Mike who is getting on in years and is dealing with cancer and heart issues. Mike has lost his wife, and is worried about his daughter Jess and his grandchildren Zach and Emma who are being threatened by an abusive husband and father. 

Larry’s publishing team from Great Plains Publications meet Darnold.

Coop enters Mike’s life from a dog shelter and when author Larry Verstraete launched his book at McNally Robinson this month he had a special guest, a dog named Darnold from D’arcy’s ARC,a Winnipeg shelter much like the one in the book.

Larry signs a book for one of our writing group members

Larry is a member of my writers’ group.  I respect Larry and am inspired by his success.  Coop the Great is his seventeenth published book for children. I am lucky I get to benefit from his expertise and experience with regards to my own work on a regular basis. I was honored to have my name mentioned in the book’s afterword as Larry acknowledged the input he receives from our writing group. 

In some ways Coop reminded me of The Littlest Hobo a television series about a dog that was popular when I was about ten years old- the age of Larry’s target audience for his book.  Coop proves to be every bit as daring and brave as The Littlest Hobo  but I liked him more than my childhood television hero. Coop is such a colorful, quirky and interesting character.  

On the cover of Larry’s book Coop has some ear buds wrapped around his neck.  It’s a clue to the exciting climax of the story that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Although Coop is definitely the novel’s main protagonist the story is also about Mike’s grandson Zack and the way he deals with his difficult family situation.  That was a helpful thing for me to read about in reference to the work I do with children, and I am sure other adults in similar professions will feel the same way. 

Larry’s book Coop the Great is an interesting, exciting and inspiring read even if you aren’t a dog lover. 

Other posts…………..

Writer or Palaeontologist?

A Glamorous Night For Manitoba Writing

Launching Not One Book But Three

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A Great Exhibit – A Great Book- And a Great Coincidence

The next novel in the Books and Brushes series at the Winnipeg Art Gallery is Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.  Our book club meets on November 13 at 11:30. I am leading the session this time and the book that’s been chosen is a perfect fit with our current exhibit The 80s Image.  I have just finished Tell the Wolves I’m Home and already have lots of ideas for ways to connect it with the art on display.  

220px-Tell_The_Wolves_I'm_Home_cover_pageTell the Wolves I’m Home takes place in 1987. Fourteen year old June Elbus has just lost the person she loved most in the world her uncle Finn Weiss who was a famous artist.  Finn died of AIDS something that people don’t really want to talk about in 1987.  

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is filled with intriguing cultural connections.  The musical South Pacific plays a role, as does The Cloisters art museum in New York, the Middle Ages and its literature and art and……….. Mozart’s Requiem.  LestWeForgetPosterv2And by happy coincidence the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir is performing Mozart’s Requiem at the St. Boniface Cathedral on November 11 just two days before the Books and Brushes session on November 13. You can learn more about that performance here. 

AIDS by the art collective General Idea- 1988

So you can go and hear the requiem and then come to the WAG to see pieces in our 80s Images exhibit and talk about the role the art as well as Mozart’s music played in Tell the Wolves I’m Home.

You can register for Books and Brushes here.   Our Books and Brushes program at the Winnipeg Art Gallery is a joint venture with McNally Robinson.  You can buy the book at their Grant Park Store.  Hope to see you on November 13. 


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Grandparents Who Were Readers

annie jantz schmidtI came across these photos of my maternal grandparents Peter and Annie Schmidt recently.  In each photo they are seen reading.  peter schmidtI was fortunate to have four grandparents who all liked to read.  I don’t have photos of my paternal grandmother Margaretha Peters reading but I do remember making regular trips to the bookstore in Steinbach to buy her romance novels in German. I remember how my grandfather Diedrich Peters loved to read National Geographic. 

I had four grandparents who modeled reading as a worthwhile and enjoyable activity.  I was lucky.  I hope I can be that kind of model for my grandchildren too. 

Other posts…….

The Lady With The Book

They Remembered the Books

A Bottomless Vortex of Books

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The Architect’s Apprentice

Tonight my book club at the West Kildonan Library will be discussing The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak.   Shafak, a Turkish author,  says her book was inspired by this image of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent which has an elephant in the background. The print created in 1559, during the same time period as the events in the book, is by a German artist Melchior Lorck and is in the British Museum.

Here are four things I found interesting about the novel The Architect’s Apprentice. 

Cristofano dell'Altissimo portrait of Mihrimah Sultan

Mihrimah Sultan is the protagonist’s love interest in the book.  Here she is portrayed by Italian artist Cristofan dell’Altissimo who lived at the same time as Mihrimah did.

Although the protagonist Jahan is a fictional character author Elif Shafak has populated her novel with other characters who are real.  Jahan is an apprentice to Sinan the renowned architect of the Ottoman Empire. Sinan oversaw the building of some 500 structures and nearly 200 of them are still standing. Jahan’s love interest is the Sultan’s daughter Mihrimah. She is a historical figure as well. So are the three sultans who are in power during the time Jahan serves Sinan the Royal Architect. In one section of the book Jahan and another apprentice go to visit Michelangelo in Italy. 

the architect's apprentice book coverThere are many thought provoking reflections in the book.  Here are a three I really appreciated. 

“If you carry a sword, you obey the sword, not the other way round. Nobody can hold a weapon and keep their hands clear of blood at the same time.”

“……Jahan understood his master’s secret resided ……… in his ability to adapt to change and calamity, and to rebuild himself, again and again, out of the ruins. Sinan was made of flowing water. When anything blocked his course, he would flow under, around, above it, however he could; he found his way through the cracks, and kept flowing forward”

“Stones stay still.  A learner never.” 

another edition cover of the architect's apprenticeJahan’s closest relationship in life is with an elephant named Chota. Jahan arrives in Istanbul as Chota’s keeper and immediately sets about saving Chota’s life.  I am not necessarily a big animal lover and will admit that I’ve never understood the deep love some people have for their pets, but I was quite taken with the way Jahan and Chota care for one another, know each other so well, come to one another’s defense, respect each other and provide each other with solace and comfort at crucial times. 

posing at the taj mahalAnd finally at the end of the book Jahan travels to Agra India to help design and build the dome for the Taj Mahal.  I have been to the Taj Mahal and my husband made me pose for this photo where I am appearing to hold up the magnificent structure by the top of the dome. 

Other posts……..

The Taj Mahal At Dawn

Do Buildings Have Souls?

A Story Board in a Painting




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Searching for Political Correctness

Reprehensible treatment of women! Cruelty to animals!  Abuse of children!  I am trying to find an adventure story for children that can inspire the twelve-year-old protagonist in the novel I am writing. Since the novel is set in 1907 I am looking for a book written before that date.  

gullivers travelsI started out with Gulliver’s Travels written in 1725 and was sailing merrily along having my main character identify with Gulliver when I discovered Jonathan Swift’s hero had treated women reprehensibly.  Gulliver implies they aren’t as reasonable as men, are frivolous and lazy and use their sexuality to get men into trouble and is disgusted when he sees a woman breast-feeding. I had to nix Gulliver’s Travels. 

swiss family robinsonNext I tried Swiss Family Robinson written in 1812 by Johann Wyss. Nice family, good values, resourceful after being shipwrecked and kind to one another.  But wait! Not so kind to animals.  They corral ostriches and ride them even though the birds are not built to hold the weight of a human. They slaughter a walrus to use its head as a prow ornament for their boat.  Even though they have plenty of meat they continue to kill for sport.  I had to nix Swiss Family Robinson. 

captain's courageousNext I tried Captains’ Courageous written by Rudyard Kipling in 1897. Great story about a rich spoiled kid named Harvey who falls off a yacht only to be rescued by a fishing schooner.  The fishermen aboard teach him all sorts of important life lessons.  How heartwarming and perfect.  But wait a minute. In the very first scene the captain of the ship hauls off and hits Harvey as a way to discipline him. He hits him hard enough to give him a bloody nose.  I had to nix Captains Courageous.  

Now I am wondering if there will be any novel written before 1907 that doesn’t have some offensive and politically incorrect content.  Any suggestions? 

Other posts………

Reading Aloud to Teens

They Remembered the Books

Why Adults Are Reading Teen Fiction


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The Perfect Novel For Me

madonnas of leningradMy friend Marilyn recommended The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean and it was the perfect novel for me.  I am an art gallery tour guide and so is Marina, the main character in the book.

trucks leave the hermitage in 1941

Trucks filled with artwork leave the Hermitage in 1941

Marina is a docent at the Hermitage Museum.  During the siege of Leningrad in 1941 all the canvases in the galleries are taken down, and shipped away to the Ural Mountains to be hidden from the approaching German army. The Hermitage walls hold only the paintings’ frames. Most of the museum staff have left their homes and taken refuge in the basement of the museum.

hermitage hall during seige

One of the gallery halls during the siege

In order to preserve her sanity Marina begins walking through the galleries and looking at the empty frames.  She remembers the paintings that once hung there and begins to describe them in detail, making the artworks come alive even though they are gone.  

The museum housed many, many paintings of the Madonna and it becomes especially important to Marina to remember how these art pieces look once she realizes she is pregnant. Her fiancée is on the battlefront and she doesn’t know if she will ever see him again. Near the end of the novel she is describing one of these Madonna paintings by Raphael to a group of young boys.  Even though the painting isn’t there she makes it real for them. 

the holy family by raphael hermitage

The Holy Family by Raphael – Hermitage Museum

“This is a wonderous painting because Raphael took these mythical characters, the Virgin Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child and he reimagined them as real people in an actual family. It is a rather melancholy painting. On one side we have Mary. She is beautiful but very distant and unaware. And quite apart from her is Joseph. He is much older than Mary and leans on his walking stick and looks almost frail. Between them standing on the mother’s lap is the Christ Child. He’s a mama’s boy. He is eyeing Joseph fearfully and his arms are reaching out to his mother. Joseph has an expression of resigned disappointment, a father whose child rejects him for the mother. One doesn’t notice the halos at first but they are there fine as piano wires. It’s almost as though Raphael was saying that what sets them apart from any other family is almost invisible. They might be us.” pg. 221 and 222 of The Madonnas of Leningrad.

What an eye and a way with words Marina has!  She is an inspiration to all guides as we try to make art come alive for the people we take on our tours.  

Other posts………….

A Book Takes Me Back to Rome

Thinking About Mothers at the Met

The Family of Jesus Portrayed in a Controversial Way

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